Why Do We Get Tip-of-the-Tongue Syndrome?

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iStock

It's happened to all of us. In the middle of a conversation, you suddenly hit a vocabulary wall. "What's that word?" you think. You know the word. But you can't say it. It's stuck there on the tip of your tongue.

There's a scientific term for this phenomenon, which is—you guessed it—tip-of-the-tongue syndrome [PDF]. It's so common that most languages have given it a term [PDF]: Koreans say a word is "sparkling at the end of my tongue," for example, while Estonians describe the missing word as being "at the head of the tongue."

For Karin Humphreys, tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is very real, both as a personal experience and a topic of research. "I'd find I would get it on the same name or same word over and over again," she tells Mental Floss. Out of desperation, she'd look up the word online, or a friend would come to her rescue. "You feel you're never going to forget it again, because the relief is just so palpable. And then I'd find myself a week later in a tip-of-the-tongue state on the same word again, which is even more frustrating! It got me thinking, 'Why the heck is this happening?'"

Luckily, Humphreys is in a unique position to answer that question. She's an associate professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who studies the psycholinguistics of language production. "I'm particularly interested in all kinds of language errors that we make," she says. In a series of six studies, Humphreys and Maria D'Angelo, a postdoctoral fellow at Rotman Research Institute, looked at why we experience tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) over and over again—and how we can prevent it.

WHY DO TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE STATES OCCUR?

Translating thoughts into words is a complex process—one that we take for granted because it usually happens effortlessly. The brain translates thoughts from abstract concepts into words and then attaches them to the appropriate sounds. Voilà: we speak. In TOT states, this process gets interrupted. "Word retrieval normally goes smoothly and easily, but in this case the system breaks down and you get stuck partway through," Humphreys says.

Why this mental process is interrupted isn't entirely clear. One study links TOT states to caffeine intake. Humphreys says they often happen when we're tired, and are more common when we're trying to recall proper names.

Frustratingly, the more we think about the missing word, as we are inclined to do, the more it eludes us. But struggling with it only to be given the answer by the Internet actually doesn't do us much good in helping us recall the word later. In fact, Humphrey's research suggests it basically ensures you'll forget it again.

Working with undergraduate volunteers, she triggered TOT states by providing a series of definitions and asked participants produce the corresponding words. To induce a tip-of-the-tongue response, the words have to be relatively uncommon with few synonyms.

A sample definition: "What do you call the sport of exploring caves?"

If the definition stumped the participant, sending them into a TOT state, they were given a bit of time to think on it. If they still couldn't remember the word, researchers would give them the answer. (The sport of exploring caves is "spelunking.") The experiment was repeated with the same participants, definitions, and words in various intervals to see if the time between tests would change whether or not participants could recall the words next time. But it didn't matter if the test happened a week later or five minutes later. Many people repeatedly experienced TOT states on the same words.

"Our results support the idea that making errors tends to reinforce those errors, making them more likely to reoccur," the authors write. In other words, every time you forget Liam Neeson's name and resort to looking it up on IMDB, you're reinforcing your mistake, digging the mental groove of forgetfulness even deeper.

"If you keep going down that pathway, it digs that path a little bit more you're a little bit more likely to fall into that same rut later," Humphreys says.

HOW CAN WE PREVENT IT FROM HAPPENING?

The good news is that the new studies offer a potential solution. Humphreys found that when participants managed to remember the word they were struggling with on their own, instead of just being told the answer, they were less likely to forget the word on the next test. And when volunteers were given a phonological clue, like the first few letters of the word, they were almost as likely to remember the word later as if they'd figured it out it on their own.

So what's so bad about just being told the answer? "Our preferred interpretation is that resolving a TOT activates the same processing pathway that is required to later retrieve and produce that word," the authors write. "In contrast, simply reading and recognizing the word does not activate the exact pathways involved in producing that word."

So the next time you're tantalized by a word on the tip of your tongue, recruit someone around you to help you out. Explain what you're trying to say and ask them to give you a clue. "We're not doomed to repeat our errors," Humphreys says.

Tonight, the Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks on Earth Day

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iStock/dmoralesf

Tonight, look up and you might see shooting stars streaking across the sky. On the night of Monday, April 22—Earth Day—and the morning of Tuesday, April 23, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll probably see meteors zooming across the heavens every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know about this meteor shower.

What is the Lyrid meteor shower?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

How to See the Lyrid Meteor Shower

Monday night marks a waning gibbous Moon (just after the full Moon), which will reflect a significant amount of light. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Monday night—when you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour—your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrid meteor shower. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

Other Visible Bodies During the Lyrid meteor shower

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

What to Do if There's Bad Weather During the Lyrid Meteor Shower

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of April 23. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on April 24 and 25, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrid meteor shower will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 5, the Eta Aquarids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

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iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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