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.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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