You know what we’re talking about. It’s that thing, that one idea, that you can describe and blurt out synonyms and anguish over sounds while it flutters around the edges of your consciousness, but you just can’t think of that one WORD!
Turns out, there’s a name for this widespread frustration: tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. The syndrome combines the feeling of not being able to recall a specific word or phrase with the inherent sense that it’s just out of reach, but will eventually come to you. Cultures all around the world have their own versions of it: Koreans call it “sparkling at the end of the tongue.” Even American Sign Language users have described a feeling of having a thought “at the tip of the finger.”
So why does this universal struggle happen in the first place?
As it turns out, speaking is kind of a complicated process. Your brain has to form an idea, translate that abstract concept into specific words, and then push those words out of your mouth with their corresponding sounds. We don’t typically think of speaking this way because it usually happens naturally, but once the process gets interrupted, things go sideways. The thoughts don’t make it to the words stage, and your ideas get stuck in your mouth.
Lots of factors can contribute to TOT (tip-of-tongue) states, like high caffeine intake and sleep deprivation. Proper names tend to be tougher to retrieve than common vernacular. To add straws to the camel’s back, the more you think about the word, the more elusive it often becomes. Google can’t even get you out of this one. Studies done by researcher Karin Humphreys show that we’re very likely to have difficulty retrieving the same word over and over again, even after we’ve been given the answer.
Thankfully, there’s something you can do it about it. Instead of resorting to the internet, just give your brain some time to dig through its databases and recall the information on its own. If you do seek out the answer, you’re more likely to ingrain the error in your brain rather than the information. Now if we could just remember his name…