Stop Forgetting Words and Improve Your Mental Clarity
We all know it, the intense frustration, the deep self-loathing when a word is stuck right on the tip of your tongue. Researchers have been studying this phenomenon since the 1960's, hoping for some relief, and finally, thanks to science, we have salvation! The words “presque vu,” meaning “almost seen,” describe that thing where you can almost say a word, you're positive you know it, and if I just give you like half a second, you'd be able to say it, but no, you totally never get it. And the French term provides a nice dose of always-appreciated culture, and I use it because the English one doesn't exist. Not 'cause I can't think of it; it's just we don't have a word for it. According to researchers, tip-of-the-tongue states, or “TOTS”, happen all the time, an infuriating once a week for most of us, which increases to about once daily as we age.
They span most languages, from Arabic to Afrikaans, and in the worst cases, they are accompanied by blockers, or so-called “ugly sisters,” like when you're trying to think of Van Gogh, and all you can think of is Vin Diesel. To understand tip-of-the-tongue states, scientists combine theories in neuroscience and computer science into what's known as connectionist models. These describe the ways we can use computers to simulate how neurons in our brains handle language. In these models, the brain is represented as a network of connected nodes, processing centers that are kind of like individual computers. Even though the connectionist models describe things in terms of networks and nodes, they're a lot like how our brains actually work. In 1949, a psychologist named Donald Hebb proposed a theory to explain how neurons in the brain change through experience to encode new information; it's how we learn. In both connectionist models and neuroscience, as you have a thought, particular clusters of neurons or nodes are activated, meaning they start sending signals to each other.
Activation then spreads from higher, more complex clusters to lower ones in patterns that seem unpredictable at first, but after a while, it's not unpredictable at all. Activating certain clusters when you have a thought actually physically changes the connections between them, making it more likely they'll activate together again. It's like a path in the woods; the more it's used, the more defined the path gets. And while learning is all well and good, it doesn't mean much if you can't cough up all the known good stuff when it comes time too! Retrieving the knowledge starts at the highest level clusters, the one containing semantic or meaning information.
Then the activation spreads down to the lowest level clusters, containing phonological or sound information. So say you want to talk about King Arthur's sword. First, a higher level cluster would light up, and that would spread down to the clusters for each sound in Excalibur. A tip-of-the-tongue state is what happens when the meaning clusters light up, but the sound clusters don't activate completely because the signal in your brain takes a detour instead of following the right path. That's why you can often describe characteristics of the word, and not the whole word itself. It's like, “It starts with S!” or “It rhymes with snorts-in-bagger!” when you're trying to remember who played the Terminator. Actually, I was playing a game with my mom recently, and she was trying to think of Uma Thurman, and she said Erna Thulman, which…
I'm not really gonna let her live that down. And as it turns out, having someone tell you the word is probably doing more harm than good. In something the researchers call the resolution effect, coming to the word yourself makes it more likely that your brain will reinforce the correct pathway for meaning-to-sound activation. So the next time someone asks you to help them with a word, you might wanna look them in the eye and say, “No! You're never gonna learn that way!” But there are other ways to help them! Researchers have found that giving a person in a TOT state a hint about the word, for example, like, “Arn…” if you're going for Arnold Schwarzenegger, helps them establish the right connections in their brain, and the next time, it'll be easier for them to come up with the word or the person's name on their own. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you wanna help support this show so we can keep making more of them and making them better so that you will enjoy them and enjoy them more and watch more and share them with all your friends and seem like a really smart person, you can go to patreon.com/scishow and if you just wanna keep watching them, go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe.
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