tip of the tongue


LATE IN 1988, a 41-year-old Italian hardware clerk arrived in his doctor’s office with a bizarre complaint. Although he could recognize people, and remember all sorts of information about them, he had no idea what to call them. He’d lost the ability to remember any personal name, even the names of close friends and family members. He was forced to refer to his wife as “wife.”

A few months before, the man, known as LS in the scientific literature, had been in a serious accident. He was thrown from his horse and the left side of his skull took the brunt of the impact. At first, it seemed as if the man had been lucky. A battery of routine tests had failed to detect any abnormalities. But now he appeared stuck with this peculiar form of amnesia, so that the names of people were perpetually on the tip of his tongue. It was agonizing.

In the years since, scientists have come to a much firmer understanding of this phenomenon. It’s estimated that, on average, people have a tip-of-the-tongue moment at least once a week. Perhaps it occurs when you run into an old acquaintance whose name you can’t remember, although you know that it begins with the letter “T.” Or perhaps you struggle to recall the title of a recent movie, even though you can describe the plot in perfect detail. Researchers have located the specific brain areas that are activated during such moments, and even captured images of the mind when we are struggling to find these forgotten words.

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