We’ve all experienced the feeling. Someone asks a question and we know that we know the answer. But unfortunately, we can’t come up with the right word. It’s right there, just out of reach. It’s so common that people long ago came up with a phrase to describe it: “tip of the tongue.”
In truth, it has nothing to do with the tongue and everything to do with the brain. That feeling even has a name: Lethologica. The words come from ancient Greek for forgetfulness (lethe) and word (logos). Psychologists define it as a feeling you have when you know the answer to a question but cannot retrieve it from memory.
In many cases, it’s just an annoyance. Typically, we end up eventually remembering the name or event we’re trying to recall. But frequent lethologica might indicate a deeper issue.
What Happens to the Brain During Lethologica?
Lethologica usually strikes when people try to remember names or places from the past:
What was the name of that man we met at the holiday party? What was the name of that town where we bought the blueberries?
Lethologica refers to these slips of the memory that occur when the answer is a place, person or word that we don’t use on a routine basis. This can include proper names or simply one of the tens of thousands of words most people have in their vocabulary but may not regularly use.
About 90% of all people experience the “tip of the tongue” feeling, regardless of the language spoken. Memories are stored in the hippocampus for the short term, before moving into other regions of the brain. Recalling a memory is a complex and involves a process known as memory reconsolidation. During lethologica, that process fails to work properly.
To add to the annoyance, studies have shown that trying to remember the word becomes more difficult the longer we think about it. That’s because the brain learns the mistake of not remembering the word rather than the word itself. Essentially, you have learned to fail!
When Does Lethologica Indicate a Worse Problem?
Those who experience lethologica may consider it a case of subjective cognitive impairment – that is, a sign of age-related cognitive problems that you notice even if others do not. However, this is not necessarily the case. Lethologica happens to people of all ages and those with no other cognitive issues.
However, your difficulty remembering words could be a sign of something else. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one of the early signs is memory loss. However, lethologica-type memory issues should only raise a red flag if they involve trying to remember things that you should have little trouble remembering. That includes appointments or recent conversations and events. If that is the case, it’s a smart move to make an appointment with your doctor and let professionals determine if there are deeper issues.
Most credit Carl Jung with identifying lethologica, and research since the early 20th century shows it is widespread but varies greatly in level of intensity. Unless your cognitive slips become more frequent or begin to involve more familiar issues, it’s probably nothing to worry about in terms of cognitive impairment.