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

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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.

Why Is Pee Yellow?

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

WHY? is our attempt to answer all the questions every little kid asks. Do you have a question? Send it to why@mentalfloss.com.

Your body is kind of like a house. You bring things into your body by eating, drinking, and breathing. But just like the things we bring home to real houses, we don’t need every part of what we take in. So there are leftovers, or garbage. And if you let garbage sit around in your house or your body for too long, it gets gross and can make you sick. Your body takes out the garbage by peeing and pooping. These two things are part of your body’s excretory system (ECKS-krih-tore-eee SISS-tem), which is just a fancy way of saying “trash removal.” If your body is healthy, when you look in the toilet you should see brown poop and yellow pee.

Clear, light yellow pee is a sign that your excretory system and the rest of your body are working right. If your pee, or urine (YER-inn), is not see-through, that might mean you are sick. Dark yellow urine usually means that you aren’t drinking enough water. On the other hand, really pale or colorless pee can mean you might be drinking too much water! 

Your blood is filtered through two small organs called kidneys (KID-knees). Remember the garbage we talked about earlier? The chemicals called toxins (TOCK-sins) are like garbage in your blood. Your kidneys act like a net, catching the toxins and other leftovers and turning them into pee.

One part of your blood is called hemoglobin (HEE-moh-gloh-bin). This is what makes your blood red. Hemoglobin goes through a lot of changes as it passes through your body. When it reaches your kidneys, it turns yellow thanks to a chemical called urobilin (yer-ah-BY-lin). Urobilin is kind of like food coloring. The more water you add, the lighter it will be. That's why, if you see dark yellow pee in the toilet, it's time to ask your mom or dad for a cup of water. 

To learn more about pee, check out this article from Kids Health. 

Scientists Discover How to Snap Spaghetti Into Two Perfect Pieces

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iStock

Important news for pasta lovers: Researchers at MIT just figured out how to snap a strand of spaghetti into two perfect pieces, according to New Scientist. The days of having to sweep up the tiny fragments that fly in all directions when you break spaghetti into two pot-ready portions are over.

In 2005, researchers in France figured out why spaghetti cracks into bits: The strand flexes in the opposite direction after the initial snap, creating a “snap-back effect” that causes it to break a second time.

Now, after snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks, MIT mathematicians have the solution. The researchers used a pair of clamps to twist individual strands of spaghetti almost 360 degrees. Next, the two clamps were slowly brought together to bend the stick, resulting in a perfect fracture. This worked for two kinds of spaghetti with different thicknesses—Barilla No. 5 and Barilla No. 7, to be precise.

The process was recorded using a high-speed camera (which can be viewed on MIT's website). While reviewing the footage, researchers realized that adding a twist is key because it prevents the spaghetti stick from forcefully flexing backwards. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Even without equipment, you can can try this at home. It might take a bit of practice, though, so have a couple of boxes handy. Ronald Heisser, a former MIT student who is now a graduate student at Cornell University, came up with the technique for how to manually snap spaghetti in two.

“I would start with my hands opposite each other—one hand upside down and the other right side up—and then make both of them right side up while twisting the spaghetti so you can work your arm strength into it,” Heisser tells Mental Floss.

“You know you're twisting it right when you feel it really trying to untwist itself. Then, you can carefully bring the ends together, trying not to change the twist at all.”

He noted that your hands should also be dry, because oiliness can make the strand slip in your fingers.

However, it's unlikely that anyone has the patience to sit there and snap one strand of spaghetti at a time. So does this trick work for a whole handful of pasta? Dr. Jörn Dunkel, who led the study, says it’s difficult to predict how a handful of spaghetti would fracture, but he believes this technique would reduce the number of pieces you end up with.

“When many spaghetti [strands] become bunched together, they can transfer energy between them, which can change their bending and fracture behavior significantly,” Dr. Dunkel tells Mental Floss. “Very roughly, as a rule of thumb, one would expect that splitting the energy between bending and twisting should always help to reduce the fragment number compared to pure bending.”

Of course, if you want to cook the true Italian way, you’ll leave your spaghetti unsnapped and intact. (Longer pasta is said to wrap around your fork better, making it easier to eat.)

But if you want to try this bend-and-snap technique for yourself, the purists would probably give you a pass.

[h/t New Scientist]

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