Tip-of-Tongue Moments Reveal Brain's Organization
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
There's at least one thing John McCain and Barack Obama would want to avoid doing during their debates - forgetting words. I'm not joking here. It happens to the best of us, and it's the subject of today's - what's that thing it's called? Oh yeah, Science out of the Box.
(Soundbite of music)
SEABROOK: Today we're talking about those weird brain moments when you just can't quite remember a word. You know you know it but you just can't pull it out of your head - names are a big one here. Well, these frustrating moments have been the subject of scientific study recently and it turns out that they tell us a lot about how the brain is organized.
Bennett Schwartz is a psychology professor at Florida International University. He studies these things. He's at WLRN in Miami. Welcome.
Professor BENNETT SCHWARTZ (Psychology, Florida International University): Thank you.
SEABROOK: Now, you study the way we remember things. What's happening in the brain when you have something at the tip of your tongue but you can't remember it.
Prof. SCHWARTZ: Not being able to remember something is a very common experience. In a tip-of-the-tongue state a part of our cognitive system called metacognition lets us know that even though we can't retrieve something at the moment it's probably there stored on our memory, and if we work at it we'll get it.
SEABROOK: I love this idea that there is memory and then there is metamemory. So, I know that guy. God, what's his name? I know him. I was just talking to him yesterday. You know, that sort of that feeling right where you're there and then you're like, oh yeah, that's John. Now, how do you get to the, oh yeah, that's John.
Prof. SCHWARTZ: There are any number of theories as to what causes any particular forgetting event. In some cases it may be something simple as something blocking. You're trying to think of someone named John and the name Jack keeps coming up. In other situations, a mild degree of stress can also interfere with retrieval.
Many times with people you'll see somebody on the street, you'll say hello, you'll have a conversation and you'll awkwardly avoid mentioning their name because you can't retrieve it. And as soon as you're walking down the street, the name comes to you. Because now the stress of the situation is off and you're able to open up your retrieval space and retrieve the correct name.
SEABROOK: But what I'm most interested in is what this all tells us about the way the brain is organized. Now, I understand that the conventional idea is sort of like your brain's, like, a big complicated filing cabinet. This is telling us that that's not so true. You can't just go to the J file and find John there.
Prof. SCHWARTZ: Memory is a mess. Information is stored in all different kinds of the brain - visual information is stored in visual parts of the brain; auditory information is stored in auditory parts of the brain. And the goal of the memory retrieval system is to bring us all together.
SEABROOK: So, you're saying that instead of, like, a filing cabinet, our brain is a big mess. It's just everything's all over the place.
Prof. SCHWARTZ: A teenager's bedroom: they know where everything is but it's a complete mess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEABROOK: Now, people often call these moments senior moments. Is there any connection to being older and having senior moments, so-called senior moments?
Prof. SCHWARTZ: Older adults have more tip-of-the-tongue experiences. For the typical 20-year-old may experience a tip-of-the-tongue state maybe once a week but by the time you're about 60 or 70 you're experiencing six or seven a week or about one a day. Exactly why has been a topic of some controversy within the field.
Some have argued that as we age our associations and connections in memory between items starts to wear down. Whereas others have argued that what really causes tip-of-the-tongue states are that older adults know more. And since they know more they have a greater amount of information for which to have a tip-of-the-tongue state for.
SEABROOK: Dr. Bennett Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Florida International University. Thanks for speaking with me today.
Prof. SCHWARTZ: Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Coming up, the Wide World of Sports has lost its legendary voice.
It's NPR News.