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SUMMER SNAPSHOT: Emma Gardner '16 on Studying Memory Loss and the “Tip of the Tongue” Word-finding Phenomenon

About Summer Research

To learn more about the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and to read more entries in our "Summer Snapshot" series, visit our SURP website.

This is the first in a series looking in on the work and projects Pomona students are carrying out this summer.

Project summary:

We’re doing research about the “tip of the tongue” (TOT) phenomenon, which is when you’re trying to recall someone’s name or what a word is and you think, “Oh, I know I know this, but I’ve completely forgotten what it is right now.” You feel like it’s on the tip of your tongue and on the verge of coming to mind but you can’t remember the exact sounds (phonology) of the word you’re looking for. Our research is about looking for the best strategy to employ once you have difficulty remembering something like a name. We’re testing older adults from the community because a lot of older adults have this experience. There are studies where it’s ranked as the most frustrating memory problem that comes with aging.

How does it work?

We bring older adults in to the lab and give them a test consisting of questions that often induce the TOT experience. In one condition, we test participants three times, to make them try to come up with the answer; in another condition, we give the test once and then present the questions with the answers. We’re trying to determine whether testing yourself and trying to retrieve the word has any benefit compared to studying the answer. Other research has shown that testing yourself is better for learning new information, but we’re finding that both methods are equally useful. We bring people back in after a week and again after three months, and it’s really interesting to see how they get more answers right after that amount of time, even if they don’t really think about it that much.

What is your mentor like?

I’m working with Professor Deborah Burke. I had her for my Intro to Cognitive Science class during my first semester, and even before I got here I wanted to work with her, but I didn’t know if that would ever be possible. Over winter break of my freshman year, I emailed her and got a reply that started off: “Oh, I don’t let anyone work for me over the summer if they haven’t worked in my lab before.” I thought, “Well, there goes that.” But the email continued: “So if you want to work in my lab in the spring, then we can make this work.” I started working with her in the spring of my freshman year and she’s really great. She’s super helpful and she cares about her students.

Why are you doing summer research?

I don’t particularly know what I want to do with my life, but I know that I really enjoy doing research and I might want to go into academia in the future. It’s also fun because you get to interact with people and hopefully end up making a difference somehow. Pomona’s really nice about giving so many research opportunities and I feel like it’s good to capitalize on that. I was here last summer doing research too, and I think it’s a really great experience, so I’m doing it again! – abridged and edited

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