Why we sometimes can’t recall things we know we know

Do you ever find yourself unable to think of a word you know you know? You feel as though the word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember it, no matter how hard you concentrate?

In those moments of tip-of-the-tongue thinking, your brain has become stuck in an unhelpful loop.

Our brains recall information by “re-creating” them thanks to associations between working memory – what we’re trying to think about – and information from the past related to it. Neuroscientist Paul King explains:

“When attempting to recall something specific, like a name, we ‘trick’ the name into appearing in working memory by thinking about concepts related to it: the person’s identity, when we saw them last, what they look like. Normally this process automatically brings the information into working memory as a side-effect of filling in related facts.”

Unfortunately our relevant memories associated with the thing we’re trying to remember can occasionally get reconstructed or otherwise shifted around. The result? Our associated memories are successfully being recalled, but they’re not “completing” the association as we would like.

We end up feeling stuck because, no matter how hard we might try, our brains can’t make the right connection. In some instances the word we think we know doesn’t even exist, we’ve simply convinced ourselves that we think we know it.

This inability to relate information from our working memory with our longer-term memory can lead to thinking cycles (or loops) that lead us to getting even more stuck. We think about the context of the word we want to remember, which leads us to thinking: “the word should be right there,” which leads us to thinking of the same context of the word, etc. On and on the cycle goes, more often than not unsuccessfully.

To break free of the fruitless cycle we must force our mental processing to break away from it.

We can ask someone else to help us think of the word, in which case we use our remote associations (words we attribute to the word we are trying to think of) which helps the other person use their own associated memories in order to (hopefully) come up with the word we’re looking for.

There are other ways to spur our thinking however. This is applicable not only to memorizing words when they’re on the tip of your tongue, but also for thinking creatively in general.

One way to do this is by thinking of words that mean the opposite of the one you’re trying to remember. By thinking of opposite words your mind breaks free from the current mental loop in order to expand into other areas of memory and context, without moving too far from what it was you were trying to think of in the first place.

As a very basic example: if I am trying to remember the word “cold” I might try thinking of opposite words like heat and sun. Those words associate in my mind with summer and swimming pools, which I also associate with ice cream, which is likely to lead me to the word I was looking for: cold.

This mental trick works because the opposite words only function in contextual relation to their opposite, which helps connect ideas within the mind (e.g. it’s easier to think of something cold when you compare it, even subconsciously, to something hot…like a warm summer day).

The same mental trick works for creative thinking, for the same neurological reasons: We often get stuck in a mental loop – or a comfortable way of thinking – that inhibits our ability to think differently.

We solve problems the same way we always have, because we know those ways will work. We drive or walk to work or school the same way we always do, because we know those ways are efficient. We spend our time doing more or less the same things and think in patterns that align with the ones we always have.

It’s only by introducing small changes or thinking about opposites that we begin to think of what’s possible.

When a detour sends us a different route than we’re used to, for example, we discover a new coffee shop, park, or restaurant to try. When we explore a new way to create what we’ve always created, we stumble on either a new solution or a new way of working. And when we decide to do the opposite of what we usually do when we encounter a problem, we are apt to discover either new solutions or new ways of working.

The next time you feel stuck – either coming up with a word you know is on the tip of your tongue, or while encountering a creative problem or situation – try thinking of opposites or doing something different/unexpected.

If you were to do something the opposite of what you usually do right now, what might happen? Only one way to find out.

Photo by Joyce Kaes.