Neuroscience FTW

This morning, I was writing an email to a professor with a proposal for a paper topic. In the middle of the email, I suddenly couldn’t think of a word I wanted to use. Try as I might, it wouldn’t come to mind. So, I left a blank (only that exact word would convey the proper meaning), finished writing the email, and then came back to it. Still couldn’t recall the word.

So I went to thesaurus.com and started typing in words that were similar to what I was trying to say, hoping that one of the synonyms would be the desired word, or that one would jog my memory. But it still didn’t work.

Then, I got up to get something to drink from the fridge, and it suddenly hit me.

The brain is a strange thing, is it not?

What I experienced today was, of course, a well-documented phenomenon called–actually–the Tip-of-the-Tongue phenomenon (or TOT for short). I did some reading on it (because I’m a nerd). One of the most fascinating aspects of TOT is the widespread feeling that the memory really is on the tip of your tongue. Of 51 languages studied, the phrase referring to the phenomenon in 45 of them includes “tongue.” Weird, huh?

There are a few theories about TOT, and not being a neuroscientist, I don’t really understand them all that well. One of the ones I think I get is the idea that different aspects of a memory are stored in different parts of the brain. A given word is actually spread all over the place, not just kept in one location: one part of the brain stores what the word sounds like, another how its spelt, another what it means, another perhaps a memory associated with it. Before the word is used, all of these aspects are pulled together. (Which makes what we do every day, speaking and writing and having conversations with each other, without having to stop (often) to think of a word, extremely impressive.)

So, if something goes wrong in the firing of synapses in the brain, you might just get part of that–maybe you know the meaning of the word you’re thinking of (that’s why you’re trying to think of the word in the first place), and you can think of other experiences where the word would be appropriate, and maybe you can even–and this is apparently well-documented–think of the first letter of the word, but you just can’t figure out the word itself.

Memory fascinates me. It’s so neat (if, perhaps, scary) that with one little misfire, an entire memory or meaning or word can be completely blocked from your conscious mind.

Of course, to try to jog my memory or find the word, I used another well-documented phenomenon (completely without realizing it had a name, of course): spread of activation. Starting with the vague notion of what the word meant, I spread out to other, similar words, expanding my search until I found the right one. (Not that I did find the right one, but I tried.)

Talking with my cognitive systems graduate friend, he pointed me towards a fascinating story that links a lot of this. Apparently a Cognitive and Neural Systems Ph.D. student from Boston University went on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, and specifically used his knowledge of the brain to answer the questions– priming where he thought of one thing over and over, trying to come up with associated memories buried in his subconscious (and building from memory to memory kind of like spreading activation), mnemonic association, etc. It’s an amazing story, and gives some great insights into how the brain works.

The brain fascinates me. It’s amazing how things that we take for granted every single day–like writing a simple sentence–involve hundreds of processes in the brain: connecting the meaning and sound and spelling and knowledge of a word with the meanings and sounds and spellings and knowledge of other words into a sentence and from that figuring out the manual processes involved in spelling that sentence out on a keyboard and then visually processing the result and relaying it back to the centres to check its meaning and compare it to the desired sentence and on and on and on. And it all happens in the blink of an eye.

And then every once in awhile, one little tiny electrical signal goes awry, and you just can’t… can’t… it just won’t… it doesn’t…

Oh, what’s the phrase?

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