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Interviewee: Karin Humphreys, McMaster University
How to Remember What You’re Always Forgetting
In a classic “Seinfeld” dilemma, Jerry draws a blank on his new girlfriend’s name, and the relationship has become too intimate for him just to ask. Throughout the half hour episode, Jerry’s various ploys to jog his memory bear no fruit, and the denouement comes too late to salvage the nascent romance. By the end of the show, the girlfriend has discovered his predicament, become irate, and stormed out of his apartment. And that’s when it hits him: “Dolores!”
Now, two psychologists from McMaster University are shedding light on the cause of Jerry’s mental block. According to a new study by Amy Beth Warriner and Karin Humphreys, the longer you try to come up with the word that’s on the tip of your tongue, the more likely you’ll be to get stuck on that word in the future.
For years, Humphreys herself endured a Seinfeld-like struggle with the word ‘obsidian,’ the term for black, shiny volcanic glass. Instead of saying ‘obsidian,’ Humphreys would think, “It’s like oblong, but no, it’s not oblong. I know that it’s not oblong but that’s the only word coming to mind,” she says.
But out of this protracted mental battle came an idea: maybe by straining her memory on that stubborn vocabulary word, she was making it even harder to remember the answer later on. To test out this hypothesis, she and Warriner brought 30 undergraduates into the psychology laboratory. Through their experiment, they found that “by actually getting into a tip of the tongue state, I’ve actually dug myself into a hole, and I’ve made this wrong learning. And the next time I go to do that, I’m going to get into this wrong state again,” says Humphreys.
The result has implications for the classroom, she says. “If the student can’t learn something or can’t remember something, then you often see the teacher encouraging them to work through it. ‘Just keep trying. It’ll come to you.’ And what we’re seeing is that perhaps that really isn’t the best technique,” she explains. Instead of trying to remember, students should look up the correct answer. And when you’re grinding your mental gears but have no way to research the answer immediately? For those situations, Humphreys advises that you “don’t keep trying. Just stop.”
For the study, published in the “Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology,” Humphreys and Warriner had volunteers play a simple vocabulary game. A computer screen would flash a question, such as “What is the name of a spear-like object that is thrown during a track meet?” (Hint: it starts with a J). Volunteers responded by pressing one of three buttons: know, don’t know, or TOT (tip of tongue). For TOT questions, the volunteers were assigned either ten or thirty seconds to agonize, before being shown the correct answer.
To make sure volunteers were staying on task, the researchers asked them vocalize their thoughts. Humphreys says the volunteers mumble things like, “‘Oh, I’m thinking. It sounds like something. I can’t quite remember. Oh! I think it starts with the letter K. I can’t quite get it.’ They actually talk aloud the whole time, so we know they’re keeping on trying to do this.”
Humphreys says the volunteers were motivated to relieve themselves of the tortured feelings that come with the tip of tongue condition. “It’s incredibly annoying, and there’s nothing more that you want in the world than to actually try and get this word out,” she says.
During the experiment, mental mining sometimes produced results. Other times, the established ten or thirty-second interval would elapse and the volunteers would still be stuck. That’s when the right answer would appear.
Two days later, volunteers came back for another go at the same questions. The finding: people who had twenty seconds longer to endure the TOT state were more likely to get stuck again on the second test. In their study, the authors describe those twenty seconds as “incorrect practice” time, where volunteers are practicing the erroneous stuck condition, rather than the answer.
The experiment has answered a question, why we repeat our mistakes, that’s been difficult for psychologists to test until now, says Humphreys. “The problem in studying this is that it’s very hard to get people to make mistakes on the spot. It’s very difficult to tease apart whether this repeated error is due to learning it, or that you’ve always had problems with this particular item,” she explains.
“What’s new about this is that we’re not trying to manipulate whether someone makes the mistake or not. We just have to wait for them to make a mistake all on their own, but what we can do instead is manipulate how long they spend” in the mistaken tip-of-tongue state, she says.
The research doesn’t stop there though. Humphreys and Warriner are following up by investigating the best way to correct your tip of tongue errors, and by studying the phenomenon in bilingual people. The research could also lead to new ways to help people who have difficulty remembering words, a problem that plagues people as they age.
So remember, if you’re trying to help out somebody who’s stuck, you should give them the answer. Humphreys also says you should “get them to repeat it back to you. But don’t leave them in this state where they just have to keep trying, because they’re just going to be digging themselves into that error again.”
So does Humphreys still get stuck when she finds herself discussing that shiny black volcanic glassy stuff? “I’ve actually practiced obsidian a great deal so I’m no longer in trouble on that particular one anymore,” she says.
This study was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychiatry and received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
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