Tags: I'll | Never | Forget | What's-Her-Name

I'll Never Forget What's-Her-Name

Monday, 13 November 2000 12:00 AM

According to California researchers, people have such experiences because they are having difficulty remembering exactly how a word sounds. To test this idea, the researchers asked 108 people questions designed to evoke such tip of the tongue experiences.

One such example, said Deborah M. Burke of Pomona College in Claremont, is "what word describes a word or phrase that reads the same both forwards and backwards?" Burke and her colleague Lori E. James of the University of California-Los Angeles theorized that words like "palisade" might be used to cue people to remember the word "palindrome." In fact, this theory was correct, they report in the November Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

In some trials, the participants read a list of ten words out loud before they were asked the question. Half of the time, these words were completely unrelated to the target word that answered the question. The rest of the time, however, five words shared sounds with the target. Compared to times when they read unrelated words, people in this latter situation were about 10 percent less likely to say they knew the answer but just couldn't come up with it.

In other trials, the researchers asked people to read a list of related or unrelated words out loud only if they didn't know the answer to a particular question or said they knew the answer but couldn't remember it. Those who said they didn't know the answer to the question were no more likely to remember it after reading either a related or unrelated list. Those people who had reported a tip of the tongue situation, however, were about 25 to 50 percent more likely to come up with the correct answer after reading a list of related words compared to when they heard a list of unrelated words, Burke said.

"The problem is not remembering the meaning of a word," she said. "The problem is the connection between the concept and pronunciation." The fact that the target word can later be cued by something a person has said or heard might explain why sometimes, apparently with no rhyme or reason, the answer to a question that perplexed you earlier suddenly springs to mind, Burke said.

While both young and old report these tip of the tongue feelings, it's more common in older adults, said Susan J. Kemper, a psychologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "A lot of older adults experience these word retrieval problems daily, if not hourly," she said. "They become alarming. They end conversations. They worry us that we are becoming senile."

"Burke's research is telling us that word retrieval problems have a very natural explanation... It should be reassuring. When you can't retrieve a word, you shouldn't end a conversation. What you or your partner says next can trigger the word you can't remember."

There's a practical point here, Kemper said. If older adults feel like their inability to retrieve words they know is ending conversations, they often stop interacting with other people as frequently. But such withdrawal simply makes it less likely that these people will hear enough different word sounds to quickly link the meaning and sound of words they use less frequently.

Previously, people have theorized that tip of the tongue experiences occur when a person comes up with a similar word that then "block" a person's ability to retrieve the actual word or phrase from memory, Burke said. However, her studies suggest that this is not in fact the case.

Copyright 2000 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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According to California researchers, people have such experiences because they are having difficulty remembering exactly how a word sounds. To test this idea, the researchers asked 108 people questions designed to evoke such tip of the tongue experiences. One such...
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Monday, 13 November 2000 12:00 AM
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