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

iStock
iStock

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.

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

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What Do Pets See When They Watch Television?

This dog would like to turn off Netflix's autoplay feature.
This dog would like to turn off Netflix's autoplay feature.
Amatore/iStock via Getty Images

In 2012, a television commercial aired in the UK for Bakers dog food that was conceived and produced specifically to attract the attention of dogs. The spot used high-frequency sounds that are inaudible to human ears. In theory, the dog would be so captivated by the advertisement that owners would take note and perhaps purchase Bakers for their next meal.

This didn’t quite work. Many dogs failed to react at all, proving that when it comes to television ads, humans may be more impressionable than canines.

While pets may not be so easily manipulated, they still find the television screen interesting, sometimes reacting to other dogs, animals, sounds, or images. But what is a dog really seeing when they tune in?

When it comes to color, television is no different from reality for a dog. They have dichromatic vision, which means they see the world through the range of two primary colors, yellow and blue. (Humans have trichromatic vision, able to see the full color spectrum.) Cone cells in canine eyes are also believed to blur their sight to a degree. More importantly, dogs process the frame rate, or “flicker fusion frequency,” of screens differently than people. Humans can detect movement at between 16 and 20 frames per second. Dogs need 70 frames per second or more. If they’re looking at an older television, it might resemble a flip book or even a strobe light effect to them. (Modern sets have a faster frame rate, which is why dogs might be more interested in your high-definition television.)

That helps explain the visuals. What about the content? Typically, dogs will react to the same things that would draw their attention in a room—barking, squeaking toys, or commands. In a study published in Animal Cognition in 2013, nine dogs were observed to see if they could pick out the face of another dog—regardless of breed—on a computer screen instead of another animal or a person. The dogs were rewarded with treats with a successful choice. Though the sample size was small, it indicated dogs can recognize other dogs on a screen. (Which you likely already knew if you’ve ever observed your dog suddenly on alert when a canine appears on camera.)

If your dog used to get excited by another dog on television but has since lost interest, it’s possible they simply became desensitized to their appearance, realizing the image in front of them isn’t going to move out of the boundaries of the monitor.

Content unrelated to dogs might not be of much interest. In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, dogs presented with three different viewing screens didn’t exhibit any particular preference for one over the other. If they were shown three screens at one time, they seemed uninterested in watching anything at all.

The study also noted that dogs had a limited television attention span. Rather than mimic the binge-watching habits of humans, dogs prefer to glance at a screen for a few seconds at a time. But that behavior could also be breed-specific. Dogs bred for hunting might be interested in moving objects, while dogs that rely more on smell might be indifferent.

And what about cats? In a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2008, 125 shelter cats were given a television to view for up to three hours a day. The cats were split into five groups and given a variety of programming to watch, from humans to footage of prey to a blank screen. On average, cats spent just 6.1 percent of the observation time watching the screen. When they did, it was mostly to focus on the prey.

Because cats may react to images of birds and rodents on television, owners should avoid letting them watch unattended. You can also secure the set to a wall to make sure they don’t knock it down.

For the most part, dogs and cats are far more interested in what’s going on in the real world compared to what's on TV. We could probably take a lesson from their limited screen time.