Nouns vs Names: Common “Tip of the Tongue” Memory Slips

We’ve all been there.  Staring desperately into the face of someone whose name you should know.  After all, she seems to know you and once upon a time you had frequent interactions with this person.  Perhaps you recall the first letter of their name and how many syllables.  But for Heaven’s sake, the name just won’t come to mind.

You just experienced what researchers call a “tip-of-the-tongue” state, that agonizing moment when you know precisely what you want to say but you fail to produce the word or phrase.

Far from being telltale signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, these moments are simply part of the way we communicate, and they’re more or less universal.

Researchers have even found occurrences among sign language users. (Those, they call tip-of-the-finger states.)

We’re more likely to draw blanks on words we use less frequently — like abacus or palindrome — but there are also categories of words that lead to tip-of-the-tongue states more often.

Proper names are one of those categories. There’s no definitive theory, but one reason might be that proper names are arbitrary links to the people they represent, so people with the same name don’t possess the same semantic information the way that common nouns do.

Here’s an experiment: Think of the first and last name of the foul-mouthed chef who has a cooking show on Fox. Now think of the hand-held device with numbered buttons you use to add, subtract, multiply or divide.

Which was easier to recall?

In all likelihood it was “calculator,” since every calculator you’ve ever seen shares those exact same attributes, giving you more context you can draw from when trying to produce the word. (That chef, by the way, is Gordon Ramsay.)

The bad news is there’s not a whole lot we can do in the moment to jog our memory when this happens. However, using certain words or names more often can make you less likely to draw a blank when you’re trying to produce that word, name or phrase.

Another suggestion:  try to come up with a visual association for the name of the person you are trying to remember.  Bald Bob.  Loud Laura.  The trick is to assign the association when you are first acquainted so the visual cue triggers the name. 

Sometimes if I have an inkling that the name begins with a certain letter, I’ll go through the alphabet in my head to try to link the next letter and land on the name.  Sally? Sarah?  Susan? Of course, you have to process these configurations pretty quickly while politely stalling.

Other tricks?  If I recognize the person, I’ll say my name first hoping that they will respond in kind. Or perhaps I’ll pretend to have a sudden need to consult my phone while quickly scrolling through my contacts.

The default solution, of course is to admit my shortcomings and go from there.  So I’ll say (as apologetically as possible) “Please remind me of your name again.”  And usually this is not a big deal.  After all, they can’t remember my name either.

Nametags anyone?

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