We've all been there. You're in the middle of a conversation or a presentation and suddenly your mind goes blank. What was that basic word, the one that I really really should know? Your panicked reaction to this untimely brain freeze only makes things worse, as your mind desperately scrabbles for an alternative. Any alternative. "Shiny crumb," was what University of Cambridge physicist Paul Coxon eventually blurted out, having inconveniently slipped over the word "photon, " a term that he would otherwise casually refer to several times a day. Naturally, his fellow scientists found it hilarious that Paul, with a Ph.D. in physics, was capable of such a catastrophic brainfart. It happens to the best of us! Paul took to Twitter to share his embarrassment and found that he certainly isn't alone!
"I was talking with a colleague about how we can control the routes photons, ie particles of light, can take as they pass through the various solar photovoltaic materials and my mind just went blank," Paul explained to Bored Panda. "We were in the department tea room and there were crumbs on the table so I guess my mind just jumped and switched photons - a word I must say dozens of times a day, for “shiny… crumbs”. I can’t properly describe it. We both saw the funny side."
"My department has lots of very bright students and researchers from all over the world and I have immense respect for my colleagues studying for PhDs in what may be their second or even third language." Since my Tweet, lots of people on Twitter replied sharing the times their minds have gone blank and forgotten words, and lots have been hilarious. The human mind is remarkable."
"I’ve also received several very nice emails from people with cognitive conditions, or are undergoing medical treatment which can cause some language impairment, saying how much they enjoyed to see folk “even those with advanced degrees” struggling with words too and it made them feel less alone, knowing that it happens to everyone."
Scroll down to read people's own hilarious stories for yourself, and share your own in the comments!
Image credits: paulcoxon
Image credits: paulcoxon
It turns out that this "tip of the tongue" phenomenon has a name: lethologica. Psychologists define the feeling as a feeling that accompanies the temporary inability to retrieve information from memory. Researchers have looked into lethologica and found some interesting aspects to this frustrating feeling.
The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is universal.Surveys suggest that around 90 percent of speakers of different languages from all over the world report experiencing moments where memories seem momentarily inaccessible.
These moments occur quite often and this frequency increases with age. Young people typically have tip-of-the-tongue moments about once each week, while older adults find that they may occur as often as once each day.
People often remember partial bits of information. For example, they may remember the letter the word they are searching for begins with or the number of syllables the word contains.
When you experience lethologica, you know that the word you are looking for is there, it's just tantalisingly outside of your grasp. It seems to have been closed off, behind some kind of mental brick wall. When something finally comes along to trigger the missing information, the sense of relief is real! There doesn't appear to be any particular reason why lethologica happens, beyond being simply tired, or perhaps the memory wasn't properly stored in the first place. Interestingly the phenomenon occurs more frequently in bilingual people, suggesting that the presence of competing words for the same meaning can have an interfering influence.
So what can you do when you are struck by a "tip-of-the-tongue" moment? One tentative study suggests it could be as simple as squeezing your fist. "By clenching your left fist (or, theoretically, any significant portion of the left side of your body) you increase blood-flow to the contralateral or right hemisphere, which gives the retrieval mechanisms a lift," it is claimed. In the study they did a 90 second clench, but you can try shorter intervals for a possible memory boost. If nothing else it could relax your mind and help you to focus on something else, because the more you beat yourself up trying to remember the word, the harder it actually becomes.