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Here’s what forgetting simple words says about your brain

‘Tip-of the tongue syndrome’ doesn’t necessarily reflect an aging memory


Have you ever had trouble thinking of someone’s name? Perhaps you can even see the face of the person in your mind’s eye, and you would immediately recognize the name if a friend suggested it to you. Although this happens frequently with names, it’s the same for any word. It’s not that you can’t remember the concept but that you can’t find the language label for it.

Word-finding problems are an almost stereotypical aspect of the cognitive issues that plague middle-aged and older adults. These failures occur without warning for even the most familiar words and names a person knows. The most troublesome words, researchers have found, are proper nouns and the names of objects. This retrieval inability can last anywhere from a split second to minutes or even hours, and they can be exasperating. In fact, older adults frequently mention word-finding problems when asked about the annoyances of aging.

book cover
Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects AgingMIT Press

In such cases, a person is certain she knows the word she is searching for. It may seem as if the AWOL term is just on the tip of her tongue, but for some reason she can’t produce it, at least at that moment. In fact, psychologists refer to such experiences as tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) states. But are they really the harbingers of befuddlement that they appear to be?

Studying TOT presents certain challenges to psychologists who want to understand how and why such states occur. Much like astronomers who study ephemeral phenomena like supernovas, researchers know that TOT states will eventually happen, but not exactly when. This uncertainty has led to two distinctly different ways of investigating TOTs: via naturalistic methods and by experimentally inducing word-finding failures in laboratory settings.

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