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From the Magazine: It's Right on the Tip of My Tongue...

Pomona College Professor of Psychology Deborah Burke

Photos by John Lucas

Pomona College Professor of Psychology Deborah Burke

Quick, what’s the name of that actor from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?

You may have already blurted out the answer, or you may be furrowing your brow. Chances are you know who he is--you may even know you know--but you might not be able to pull up his name at this particular moment.

That state of mind is a tip-of-the-tongue experience: the feeling when you are sure you know a word or name, but can’t quite produce it. Researchers call it a TOT for short.

A TOT is a very specific kind of memory lapse, says Pomona College Psychology Professor Deborah Burke, who has studied the problem for two decades. You know everything about old what’s-his-name or the meaning of the word you’re searching for; the problem is only in accessing the sounds.

TOTs are especially frustrating for older people, Burke says; surveys show TOTs are among their biggest concerns about aging. With an aging U.S. population—the Census Bureau projects that nearly one in five residents will be more than 65 years old by 2030--there is plenty of interest in TOTs and how to avoid the embarrassment they cause.

“People think they’re going nuts,” Burke says, when they forget a close friend’s or relative’s name. But she and her students have shown that TOTs are a normal part of aging. Their next task is to come up with a way to diminish TOTs, but Burke says that problem is much more challenging than simply devising a word game.

Burke invites older adults into her spacious offices in the new Lincoln Building to test their ability to name actors such as Judy Garland and uncommon words such as “astrolabe.” Pomona undergraduates put subjects through their paces, hoping they’ll have a TOT that will add to the data collection. Subjects come from the local community and include many Pomona alumni and retired staffers. Pomona students earning psychology course credit provide the younger counterpart.

Growing Old with TOTs

There is plenty of good news about aging, Burke notes. “The maintenance of knowledge, and the development of wisdom, are happy facets of aging,” she says. “This idea that you get slow and muddled is just not true.” Older people also tend to keep their vocabularies.

Burke has been interested in the aging brain since she joined the Pomona College faculty in 1977, but it was another Pomona figure who put her on to TOTs. Former Dean of Students Jean Walton was a subject in the lab, and she found the language comprehension tests boring. Burke recalls that Walton said, “Look, Debby, if you want to investigate something that’s really important, then find out why I can’t remember the name of my friend of 20 years when I go to introduce her.”

Burke decided to take on Walton’s challenge. The first task was to show that TOTs do, in fact, increase with age, as Burke and colleagues did in a 1991 report in the Journal of Memory and Language. TOTs are common for infrequent words, or words a person hasn’t used in a while. Burke theorizes that the meaning of a word and the sounds of that word are stored differently in the brain, making it possible to access the full meaning while the syllables remain tantalizingly out of reach.

The researchers found that proper names were especially likely to evoke TOTs. That may be because names are just labels, having little to do with anything else about the person. A woman called Rose, by any other name, would be the same lady. Celebrity names were the hardest--after all, the name of the actor we’re looking for has little to do with him as a person or film star.

Burke, now 63, has observed first-hand that TOTs escalate with age. “It’s amazing how bad it gets,” she says. “My students laugh…they think it’s really quite funny that I have all these tip-of-the-tongues.” At least for Burke there’s a benefit--every TOT is a data point that informs her research.

Starting Hints: Brag Pitch

Being a subject in Burke’s lab is rather fun, says Carolyn Loper, 72, a retired teacher and psychotherapist who stopped by recently to participate in TOT-reducing experiments. Subjects sit down in a tiny room with a student researcher and a computer that presents celebrity photos or word definitions. In this artificial setting, with a researcher waiting expectantly, it’s amazingly easy to have a TOT. You might find yourself looking at a picture of Elvis Presley--and surely, you know who the King of Rock ’n’ Roll is--but at that precise moment, the name can elude you.

The work is fun for the students, too, says psychology major Brett Erspamer ’12. She enjoys hearing the stories older people have to tell.

Working with TOTs in the laboratory, Burke has found that she can help people resolve a TOT state by providing similar-sounding hints. For example, what’s the word that means to formally renounce a throne? Unless you happen to be royalty, it’s probably not one you use a lot. But say out loud: “abstract, abacus, educate.” Does that get you any closer to “abdicate?” Burke’s work says it should.

Lise Abrams ’91, now a professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, had her first taste of research in Burke’s lab, working on speaking speed with older adults. Burke’s early research on TOTs and hints, published in 2000, inspired Abrams to pursue the topic in her own lab. Abrams is one of many former Burke students who stuck with research as a career. “I feel very grateful that I was able to be one of her students,” Abrams says. “She’s the sort of mentor that I aspire to be.”

Abrams had a hunch that the first syllables of a word would be the most effective hints. She invited undergraduates into her laboratory and tested them on uncommon words until she found one that produced a TOT. Then, she offered a list of other words, some of which shared the first letter or the first, middle or last syllable with the word the person was stuck on. As suspected, the first syllable was the most helpful hint.

These studies may help explain why many older people say the best thing to do with a TOT is to think about something else, and the desired word will suddenly, unexpectedly, pop into your mind. It may be, Abrams suggests, that the word you’re looking for only pops up after you use similar sounds in another word. For example, you might not be able to name actor Anthony Hopkins until you find yourself listening to the national anthem or playing hopscotch—and suddenly you can speak the name you knew all along.

Your Brain on TOTs

Meredith Shafto ’96 is another former Burke student; at Pomona, she studied tongue twisters. Now a research associate at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., she and Burke worked together to find a physical cause for TOTs. The brain naturally shrinks with age, although scientists are not sure why. Could it be that some part of the brain, as it shrinks, also weakens one’s sound-finding skills?

The researchers collected subjects between 19 and 88 years old and challenged them to identify familiar politicians, sports stars and entertainers. Some people had only a few TOTs, but others--particularly the older participants--had many. Then, Shafto and her colleagues put their TOT subjects in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to take pictures of their brains, and measured the sizes of different structures. They compared the MRI measurements with the TOT scores and looked for parts of the brain that were smaller in people who had the most TOTs.

Shafto found that an area called the left insula was likely to be smaller in people who had lots of TOTs. The insula is a long, skinny structure that runs from the temple to behind the left ear. The left insula is involved in many processes--pain and emotion, for example--and producing language is one of its jobs. So as the left insula shrinks, the scientists reasoned, it may become more difficult to find the sounds you’re looking for.

In another study, Shafto asked young and old participants to identify celebrities while inside the MRI machine. That way, she could look for activity in the left insula as people searched for the right sounds. When people knew the name right away, there was no difference in insular activity between younger and older subjects. But in the TOT state, young adults had higher signals in the left insula, perhaps as they amped up its activity to search for the missing sounds.

“It seems that older adults have trouble regulating this process,” Shafto says. However, she notes that the left insula does not act alone; it is likely just one cog in a complex pathway between thought and sound.

“Retrieving sound information is much more precise than the meaning,” Shafto says, which may be why it’s hard to find the sounds for a word or person you know. For example, in the case of our actor friend, you can think of him as the guy from A River Runs Through It, Se7en, or Ocean’s Eleven--it’s all the same man. But there’s only one combination of sounds that makes his name.

Homophones Help: Cherry Pit

In another study at Pomona, Burke looked at names that are homophones; they sound like another word. For example, Joan Rivers and Vincent Price share sounds with common words. So, does naming a long stream of water or the cost of an item help you identify these celebrities? Indeed it does, for both older and younger adults. For example, if you think about a hard stone inside a fruit--the pit, that is--you may have an easier time labeling the actor we’re considering.

Burke and Erspamer are now analyzing whether names or words make better hints. For example, are you a few degrees closer to naming actor Kevin Bacon if you just identified Renaissance philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, or the cured meat you eat for breakfast? One of the challenges, Erspamer says, is to come up with celebrities that both older and younger people will recognize. It took her months just to create her test. Burke feels she has a good understanding of what causes and resolves TOTs; next, she’d like to develop ways for people to avoid embarrassing TOTs in everyday conversation. Applied science is a new challenge.

“It’s a different kind of research,” she says. “Taking basic findings, and turning them into something that will actually improve people’s everyday life, is very hard.”

There are plenty of brain-training games out there, but most are junk, Burke says. “They’ll make you better at the game…but they don’t generalize to the everyday skills that we really care about.” She was horrified to discover a website that cited her work, advertising a game she’s sure won’t help people retrieve words at all.

Another student, linguistics/cognitive science major Micah Johnson ’10, spent the summer working on the TOT therapy project. He brought people in for multiple sessions, sending them away with homework exercises that, he and Burke hope, will help them avoid TOTs in future sessions.

Although a Burke-endorsed brain game is likely far off, there are tricks you can use now to avoid TOTs, Burke says. Like any other skill, the key is practice. Scrabble and crossword puzzles are good ways to practice word-finding; social activities such as book clubs can also help. Before a party, Burke recommends running through a mental list of the people you expect to meet and their names. Saying those names ahead of time, hopefully, should put those sounds right on the top of your mental collection when that person is standing in front of you.

All that practice might help you come up with the name--in case you haven’t figured it out by now--of Brad Pitt.