I’m sure you are familiar with those ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ moments! Times when the very word you were just going to use suddenly vanishes into thin air.
Tip-of-the-tongue moments are usually accompanied by a strong sense of ‘knowing that you know it’, you will certainly know the meaning of the word and sometimes even the first letter, but the word itself eludes you. It is also accompanied by a strong sense of frustration! I am sure you know exactly what I mean. You will have discovered, too, that the resolution is just as mysterious and the word pops right back into your head, usually when all efforts at retrieval have been abandoned.
Have you ever wonder why they happen? They do become more frequent with age. In one study at the University of Virginia designed to measure tip-of-the-tongue frequency, 20 year olds were ‘stuck’ on a word three times, compared to eight times for the 80 year olds. But this does NOT mean that it is associated with some sort of increasing memory loss.
It is believed that because the semantic meaning of words is stored in one part of the brain and the sound of the word in another, that if these two areas do not ‘fire’ together, then a tip-of-the-tongue can result. And as we grow older, the brain can be a little slower to act.
Interestingly, it is such a common experience that it is described in most cultures. Poetically, in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, translating to ‘sparkling at the end of my tongue’ – describes it beautifully. Similarly, Cheyenne Indians term it navonotootse’a or ‘I have lost it on my tongue. I understand that the phenomenon also occurs for hearing-impaired people who are signing. Again, the first letter is likely to be there, and then the rest of the word vanishes.
As we age, the most common occurrences of tip-of-the-tongue are going to be in names – names of people (often embarrassingly people we know really well), names of books, authors, songs, characters on TV we usually recall without difficulty.
So, rest assured. If you are noticing you experience tip-of-the-tongue incidents more often than you used it, it is not related to general memory loss.
By Dr. Allison Lamont
Founder and memory consultant at the Christchurch Memory Clinic.