I’m sure you’ve had that frustrating feeling of trying to call a word or name to mind but feel like it’s just out of reach – on the tip of your tongue.
But now researchers believe they’ve located the part of the brain that gives birth to these annoying can’t-quite-remember-the-word moments.
And they also think they’ve come up with a potential solution. . .
Scientists who study the brain have devoted a good deal of time to investigating why we’re afflicted with what they call tip of the tongue “states.” One of their first discoveries, which is really no surprise, is that tip-of-the-tongue moments increase as we get older.
Plus, while younger people seem to be better able to focus and eventually remember the word they were trying to retrieve from deep storage, older adults are more often frustrated in the effort no matter how much energy they pour into it.1
Now studies suggest some reassuring news about tip-of-the-tongue moments: While they can be emotionally distressing, they are not necessarily linked to having serious memory problems like Alzheimer’s disease.2
But the bad news is that they may indicate your language skills are eroding – they can be a sign you’re getting less articulate and experiencing difficulty in conversing with other people. Not to mention the embarassment you can feel when you hem and haw trying to remember a person’s name or some other word you just… can’t… quite… recall.
It All Starts in This Part of the Brain
Researchers in England have produced evidence that the part of the brain where these word retrieval problems originate is the “left insula.”3
This area, which is located in the brain’s cortex, plays a key role in our use of language. It is also believed to have a part in producing self-awareness and perceptions about our social standing.
However, studies have also found that when Alzheimer’s and other types of neurodegenerative conditions begin, this part of the brain is prone to serious damage. (But remember, tip-of-the-tongue moments do not indicate that this type of harm is occurring.)
Improve Your Word Recall
To date, the only method scientists have identified for protecting the gray matter in your insula — keeping it from thinning and increasing your tip-of-the-tongue frustrations — is to become more aerobically fit.
A study in England concludes, “The higher an older adult’s aerobic fitness level, the lower the probability of experiencing a tip-of-the-tongue state.”4
Even if being aerobically fit doesn’t help fight off these moments, it’s still worthwhile: A study at the University of Maryland shows that a moderately intense exercise program – biking, running, brisk walking, swimming, etc. — helps to thicken the brain’s cortex, where the left and right insula are located.5
The Maryland investigation demonstrates that this thickening reduces the harmful brain shrinkage that can occur as you get older and can even improve the brains of those suffering mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that often precedes Alzheimer’s.
According to researcher J.Carson Smith, “Many people think it is too late to intervene with exercise once a person shows symptoms of memory loss, but our data suggest that exercise may have a benefit in this early stage of cognitive decline.”
It’s never too late to start exercising for more brain protection. Even a walk around the block every day can help.
Another thing to consider is that many people lose mobility in their advanced years and don’t have the luxury of taking a daily walk, even if they’ve got the will to do it. So if you’re still mobile, be thankful and take advantage of it to build up your brain capacity while you can.