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New Study Offers Insights on Why We Can't Remember "What's-Her-Name"

“I’ll never forget what’s-her-name” expresses the familiar experience of vividly remembering a person but not his or her name. You can picture her. You know when you last saw her. Her name is right there on the tip-of-the-tongue but you just…can’t…grab it.

This sort of “tip-of-the-tongue” (TOT) experience happens to people more often with each passing year, says Deborah Burke, a psychologist at Pomona College who has been working on the riddle of tip-of-the-tongue experiences for more than 20 years. The majority of naturally occurring TOTs involve failure to retrieve proper names, and TOTs experiences involving proper names increase more with aging than those involving other types of words.

Burke’s new study, being published in the March 2004 issue of Psychological Science, provides compelling insight into why we are unable to produce people's names and other words that we know we know, and why this problem gets worse with aging.

People’s names are not only more difficult to learn than biographical information, but are also more difficult to retrieve once learned, explains Burke. Among the reasons is that proper names indicate individuals but most contain little sense or meaning because they indicate few attributes or qualities. For example: clues to the word “pit” include hard seed, in fruit and hard. To arrive at a last name, there is only the single connection from the representation of a single person, for example Brad Pitt, to get to “Pitt.”

In phase one of her recent study, Burke measured whether the probability of whether TOT for a person’s name (e.g. Brad Pitt) was affected by prior production of a homophone (a word that sounds the same with different meaning) of that name (e.g. cherry pit). Fifty-eight young adults and 40 healthy older adults were shown 86 pictures of famous people, whose last names had familiar homophones, and asked to name them. Prior to that task, they were given verbal fill in the blank statements that included the 86 homophones as well as 129 definitions for unrelated words.

The tests found that there were more TOTs for the older than the younger adults, and that the homophone priming effect was significant for each age group, though larger for older than young adults.

The second phase of the study, involving 36 young adults and 36 healthy older adults, included 20 target (homophone names) and 50 filler pictures, and 20 definitions eliciting homophones of target proper names and 60 definition eliciting unrelated words. This test found that correct naming was greater in homophone-primed older adults than the unprimed condition, and eliminated the age deficit in correct naming. Specifically, older adults produced fewer correct names than young adults in the unprimed condition but not in the homophone-primed condition. For both age groups, retrieval of the correct proper name was faster after the production of a homophone.

These findings are the first to show relatively long–lasting priming effects based on the sound of words. The pattern of findings, explained Burke, helps to explain why older adults have more frequent word retrieval failures than young adults and why proper names are hard to retrieve. “Connections in memory weaken more rapidly for older than young adults. When connections among the components of the sound of a target word are weak, it will be difficult to say this word. This problem can be eliminated by pronouncing the sounds because this strengthens the connections, producing a priming effect: the improvement in production of the target word. The benefit from pronouncing the homophones was greater for older than young adults because older adults are more likely to suffer weak connections.”

What this all means is that there are easy, practical ways for people to reduce their rate of tip-of-the-tongue experiences. The key says Burke “is that frequent production of a word will reduce the likelihood of a retrieval failure. For example, shortly before a meeting or party, saying aloud the names of people who you are likely to see at the event will reduce the probability of a retrieval failure. In addition, recreational activities that involve language production will help to keep word retrieval functioning. Thus games like Scrabble that involve producing words will be more beneficial than games like bingo or checkers that do not require word production. Social interaction in the form of conversations will help more than watching TV.”

Deborah Burke is the W.M. Keck Distinguished Service Professors and Professor of Psychology at Pomona College. Her most recent scholarly articles on aging, memory and language have been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Psychology and Aging, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. A member of the Pomona College faculty since 1977, she received her Ph.D. from Columbia University and has received research funding grants from the National Institutes of Health since 1980.

Read Deborah Burke's Faculty Profile...