Our Fragile Memory: It’s On The Tip Of My Tongue

Have you ever been writing a document, preparing a presentation or conversing with someone and you know exactly what you want to say, but you can’t think of the word?  This is not a vocabulary issue; you have used this word several times before.  You can define it quite well and even give examples of how the word is used in real life.  But you can’t come up with the word at this particular time.  It is a memory issue.

This does not mean old age is coming or this is the beginning signs of dementia.  The way our memory works, the word is known and is stored somewhere in our brain.  You haven’t forgotten the word, your brain simply cannot find where it is located at that moment.

This actually happened to me the other day.  I was flying from Minneapolis to New York and taking notes on research. I had the perfect word to use, only I couldn’t recall it.  I knew I had used it before, in fact I had used the word several times.  I was perplexed I couldn’t come up with it.  The word “rationalize” kept coming to mind, but that wasn’t it. I could define it.  It is a word that helps bring together two ideas, often opposing or at least not initially correlated.  I sat there for probably 10 minutes stirring about it.  Then I realized that in order for the word to come to me I needed to distract myself.

Sometimes we need a break from the task at hand and then return to the subject later on. That gives our brain kind of a re-start, similar to when our cell phones freeze and we need to turn it off and on.  So what are you to do if you can’t recall a specific word you want to use?

During A Conversation (Immediate Recall Required)

Just describe it and move on.  You are unlikely to recall it within 2 seconds if the recall is not immediate.  If you don’t focus on “forgetting” the word, neither will your audience.

For A Report or Email (Have Time to Think of Word)

Distance yourself from the topic.  Think about something totally unrelated or don’t think at all.  This sounds counterintuitive, but it works.  By taking a break from the specific thought you allow the brain to do other things, but our subconscious is still searching for that word.  That is why oftentimes we will remember something totally out of the blue, because our subconscious was working behind the scenes to find it.  We didn’t realize that because it is a subconscious process (occurs without our awareness).

Back to my story.  I took my own advice (which I don’t always do), left the topic and thought about something else.  A few minutes later I returned.  Still nothing.  So I thought of something else.  Within 10 minutes the word magically popped into my mind.  The word was “reconcile”.

The best thing to do for a word you have forgotten, but believe you will use in the future, is to repeat it over and over. Write it down on a sticky note on your desk where you will see it.  The picture below is of my forgotten word on my white board.

As you repeat it and see it over time, the word will be more easily recalled in the future.  The chance of that word being on the tip of your tongue in the future will be lessened.  Now if we could only do that with every word in the dictionary!