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Tip of the Tongue Moments

How many times have you been in the middle of a conversation with someone and need to use a word or remember a name that just completely leaves you? You sit there are try and remember it for a few moments, but if it doesn’t come, you move on, frustrated by your brain’s seeming inability to remember that name you never really forgot.

Jonah Lehrer wrote an excellent article in today’s Boston Globe describing this phenomenon and, more importantly, how researchers are using it to gain insights into how the brain stores and processes information.

How might the mind keep track of its own contents? For the last several decades, scientists have assumed that the brain contains some innate indexing system, akin to a card catalog in a library, that allows it to immediately realize that it can produce a specific piece of knowledge. This is known as the “direct access” model, since it implies that the conscious brain has direct access to the vast contents of the unconscious.

The tip-of-the-tongue experience, however, is leading researchers to question this straightforward model. According to this new theory, the brain doesn’t have firsthand access to its own memories. Instead, it makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall. For instance, if we can remember the first letter of someone’s name, then the conscious brain assumes that we must also know his or her name, even if we can’t recall it right away. This helps explain why people are much more likely to experience a tip-of-the-tongue state when they can recall more information about the word or name they can’t actually remember.

Sadly, the research also points to the likelihood of these moments becoming more frequent as we age:

The research suggests why the tip-of-the-tongue experience becomes so much more common with age. Numerous studies have documented the effects of the aging process on the frontal lobes, with the areas shrinking in size and decreasing in density. As a result, the frontal lobes become less effective at searching the rest of the cortex for specific pieces of information. This suggests that lapses in memory become more common not just because the memories have faded, but because it is harder and harder to find them. The memory is there, but it looms, frustratingly, just out of reach.

It’s interesting to piece together a picture of the brain in this manner, through examining how the brain works when it’s not working all that well in our service. And then to discover that the real model of how the brain works might be far messier and more complex than anyone had previously imagined…

Read the full article: What’s that name?

Tip of the Tongue Moments

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Tip of the Tongue Moments. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Jun 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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