What’s the Word?

As an editor, it’s disheartening when I try to suggest new wording only to find that I can’t think of the word I want to recommend. A thesaurus can be helpful, but often if I move on to something else or focus on things I associate with the word, it will come to me eventually.

My experience with the tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon is a common one. As a 2008 bulletin from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute describes, this phenomenon occurs across languages and throughout life, although it becomes more common as we age. We can blame the phenomenon for the times we forget proper names or can only remember the first letter of a word or name.

Researchers posit that the prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-order thinking and thought organization) and the anterior cingulate cortex (which plays a role in decision making) may be involved in the memory retrieval problem of TOT.

But, suggest researchers Bennett L. Schwartz and Janet Metcalfe in an article published last January, TOT may have a beneficial function, “alerting us to the possibility of remembering when retrieval apparently has failed.” Once you become aware of a problem, you can work to fix it, trying even harder to uncover the hidden word or name (or turning to that trusty thesaurus). The more time spent searching for a word, they suggest, the better we remember it in the future—retrieval can act as a learning tool. This leads the authors to recommend that children with dyslexia (for whom TOTs are more common than children without the disorder) should be encouraged to take the time to retrieve known words, rather than having adults provide them.

A more serious inability to remember words can come as a result of injury or dementia resulting in aphasia, a disorder impacting the ability to speak or understand speech. Anomia, a common symptom of aphasia, makes it difficult to impossible to recall words. As scientists continue to study aphasia recovery, we may begin to know more about the more common and benign TOTs.

–Johanna Goldberg

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