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April 2003 Issue

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Tip of the Tongue Memory Problem

By Gary K. Probst, Email:probstgk@pg.cc.md.us

What most people do not realize is when you have a tip of the tongue memory problem, they move their hands and fingers until they can recall the information.


Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon  Or
How to get it off your tongue and out of your mouth

What is the topic of the tongue phenomenon?  Everyone knows the frustrating experience that develops when the  word or information you need is available in your memory but cannot be recalled.  This experience is called the tip of the tongue phenomenon because one has a strong feeling of knowing the word or the information but is unable to retrieve it.
There are two types of information stored in the brain.    Available information is material known and it is stored in your  memory.  Accessible information is information that can be  recalled or retrieved from information stored in the mind.  It is
possible a person can have available information that not accessible.


What are the two forms of the tip of the tongue phenomenon?

The tip of the tongue phenomenon can take the following two forms.

1.  Completely unable at the moment to recall the information.  However, the information may "pop" into your mind at a later date.  This will result in the following"

  1. Substitute "thingamajig" or "whatchamacallit" in place of a word when speaking.  When writing use a pronoun or general term in place of the term that cannot be recalled.
  2. Delay while trying to recall a known answer to a question or information and later in the conversation saying "Oh, I known that."
  3. Use time fillers such as "um" or some other sound while trying to retrieve the information from your mind.
  4. Snapping your fingers as you search your mind for the elusive information.

2.  Three different kinds of word substitution for the word or information can take place that are usually referred to as a slip of the tongue.  These slips of the tongue can be funny or embarrassing depending upon the situation.  

  1. Interchange the words that are related to each other or  similarly related to something else
  2. Substitute an interfering word that is often said with other words in the sentence.  
  3. Substitute an interfering word that sounds like the word you are trying to find.


What is the cause of the tip of the tongue phenomenon?

The tip of the tongue phenomenon is caused by several sources.

  1. Some authorities say it becomes more common as a person ages.  However, this does not explain why people of all ages experience this phenomenon.  
  2. When trying to learn the new information relevant connections were not made between the new information and information stored
    in the mind.  Information learned in isolation is difficult to recall at a later time.  Information needs to be connected to as much other information as possible.  This way a network is established that can be used to recall information.  
  3. When learning a new name, term or information involves all of the senses.  It is important to use sights, sounds, feelings, and smells when learning new information.  Try to visualize the information.


What can be done to prevent the tip of the tongue phenomenon?

1.  When learning new information, the information should be connected to as many other items of information as possible.  A traditional outline information from general to specific does not reveal the connection of the items of information.  Cognitive maps are the best way to learn information because they reveal the connections of the new information to other information similar to the way information is stored in the brain.  

Solution:  Students should be instructed on how to make and use a cognitive map to learn new information.

2.  Involve all of the senses when learning new information.  Always visualize the sights, sounds, smells and feeling that go with the new information.  Studies have shown that this is a very effective aid to recalling information.  Look at any national advertisement and notice how it appeals to sights, sounds, smells and feeling stored in a person's memory.  Advertising uses visualization of the senses so that at a later time the product will be recalled when a person visualizes or encounter something that was given in the advertisement.

Solution:  Students should be taught how to visualize the information they are trying to learn.


What to do to make available information accessible when  experiencing tip of the tongue problem?

When having a tip of the tongue problem, you probably do not realize what was unconsciously done in the past to help recall the needed information.  What was done is gesturing with your hands by twisting your wrist or wrists back and forth and wiggling your fingers.  Therefore, when trying to recall something that is available in your memory, do the following:

  1. Twist one wrist back and forth.
  2. Twist both wrists back and forth if number 1 does not work
  3. Move your lips if number 2 does not work
  4. Visualize the information while doing number 2 and 3 if number 3 does not work
  5. When all of the above suggestions fail, look up at the ceiling, close your eyes and silently say, "If you tell me the answer, I will not or will (enter what you will or will not do) for (enter the time period).  However, do not expect any reply to this request!


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