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Elder Care: Wait It’s Just On The Tip Of My Tongue

What is that word? I know it. I think it starts with a P. It is on submarines. I can just see it in my head but can’t come up with the word. Minutes later, the word “periscope” pops into my head. What just happened?

I just experienced something called the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. This happens when you search for a word but cannot immediately recall it. You feel that the word is on the tip of your tongue. You know what the word means and how it might sound, such as recalling the first letter of the word. Your brain just can’t immediately retrieve it. Then, in just a couple of minutes the word rolls off your tongue. It is a very frustrating experience.

Psychologists have found this phenomenon to be a universal one, and it happens to people about once or twice a week. It happens more frequently as people age. Proper names often are the hard words to retrieve. Quick, who played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind?” If you can’t think of her name, wait until you get to the end of the column where it will be revealed.

The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can happen for several reasons. Perhaps a similar sounding word is recalled first, and it blocks the way for you to name the correct word. In the first example, the word telescope could have blocked finding the name periscope. If you could just get the word telescope out of your head, you know you could find the right word. Telescope is stuck there, and it is only when you relax and give up searching that your brain is free to retrieve the correct word.

Blocking also can interfere with identifying music. Playing a song may bring up the memory of another song or musical group difficult to name. When the song ends, and if you can get it out of your head, you are able to come up with the name of the other song or group.

Another explanation comes from examination of how words are held in your memory. Words are made up of letters that create sounds and represent meaning. These elements are processed in different parts of the brain. According to a study by Dr. James at UCLA and Dr. Burke of Pomona College, your brain must find the connections between the visual, sound and meaning of the word to retrieve it. Connections weaken over time, so if you haven’t used or thought of the word for a long time, it may be harder to retrieve.

Proper names may be frustrating to find because there is less of a connection. After all, how long has it been since you have seen “Gone With the Wind?”

It is very annoying to have a word on the tip of your tongue, especially when it happens more frequently as you get older. The trick is to keep those connections active. Doing crossword puzzles, reading, playing memory games will help keep those connections sharp. Learning and using new words in writing and in speech also helps. Finally, relax when that word is on the tip of your tongue. It will come to you sooner or later.

Answer: Vivien Leigh

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