"Oh, I loved that movie! And what's-her-name was great in it. You know, that actress with the long, light brown hair. And she played that country singer. Hang on, I know this … "
Most of us have had a case of "tip of the tongue" syndrome at some point. The phenomenon is so common it actually has a clinical shorthand, a "TOT state." It occurs when the left temporal and frontal areas of your brain temporarily fail to work together to retrieve words or names stored in your memory, or other information, like where you left your keys. Multitasking, fatigue and the natural aging process all contribute to your chances of having a TOT moment, but surprising new research claims a simple trick could help you better retain and recall memories, even under stress.
(MORE: 6 Memory Problems That Shouldn't Worry You)
Those findings, published in the online science journal PLOS ONE, reveal that clenching your right fist can give you a better grip on your memory. A research team from Montclair State University in New Jersey asked subjects (all of whom were right-handed) to clench their left or right hand immediately before trying to memorize a list of words and again before trying to recall it. The group that clenched their right fists when memorizing the words and their left fists when remembering them scored better on tests of recall than any other group, including those who didn't clench their fists at all.
"The findings suggest that some simple body movements, by temporarily changing the way the brain functions, can improve memory," lead researcher Ruth Popper said in a statement. She believes hand clenching activates specific brain regions associated with memory formation and enables an individual to form stronger memories.
"Future research will examine whether hand clenching can also improve other forms of cognition, for example, verbal or spatial abilities," she added. In other words, remembering where you put your keys.
When Things Get Stuck
Tip-of-the-tongue states are believed to affect the average adult about once a week. While it's more common among older people, researchers note, that's not necessarily a bad thing or a warning sign of cognitive failure. Experiencing a TOT state while trying to recall information is a sign that the information remains present in your memory, able to be retrieved even if it takes more time.
Any kind of information – an address, a birthday, a bit of sports trivia – can get "stuck," but names appear to be the most common misplaced data. "It usually happens when you're trying to recall names, titles or words you don't use frequently," says Caroline Racine, Ph.D., assistant adjunct professor of neurological surgery and radiation oncology at the University of California, San Francisco. The phenomenon can also affect us while writing a letter, email or a check, she says, and deaf people can experience the "tip of the finger" phenomenon when trying to sign a name they can't quite recall.
How to Beat TOT
"People can often come up with the first letter and words associated with the word of phrase they're trying to remember," Racine says. You might know a person's name starts with M, for example, or that she has brown hair or often wears a yellow jacket. Still, you can't call up the name.
But the information you do recall could help you unearth the missing name or fact. "Your brain links together related words and activating the neurons in your brain related to one word can cause some activity in related words," Racine says. She advises circumlocution or talking around the word. "That may help activate a network of words that are all related and help the TOT word pop up," she says.
You can also try to tap into your brain's phonological network — a mass of words stored close together because they sound alike (phone, foam, home). Vocalize the words you think might be similar to or sound like the one you're trying to remember. If you're fighting to recall a former co-worker's name that you think has one syllable and starts with M, just start saying Mike, Mac, Max, Mark out loud. You could stimulate the network and aid your search.
"If you can't remember the name of an old classmate," says Dr. Alan Shepard, a neurologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, "try an association, such as trying to remember the names of other classmates." Similarly, when trying to remember the name of a movie or song, think about the stars of the film or the tune's lyrics.
If you enter a TOT state, you can also try making a fist with your left hand to improve recall. Even if you didn't clench your right hand when you stored the information, making a fist with your left could still help with recall.
Forget About It
The most important tip for getting out of a TOT state, the experts say, is not to panic.
"You'll compound TOT by feeling anxious or nervous that you can't remember the word," Shepard says. That panicky feeling can send your brain into fight-or-flight mode, leaving it unable to concentrate on recalling what's stuck on the tip of your tongue.
One often-successful trick for remembering information is to put the problem out of your mind. "Focusing on the fact that you can't remember the word stresses out your brain," Racine says, "and doesn't let areas in your brain return to their normal functioning state." When you let go of the search and start to focus on something else, the word will often pop into your head.
Got it — Sissy Spacek!