Tag Archives: tip-of-the-tongue

Part 2: “I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Yesterday, I wrote about the ways in which the tip-of-the-tongue experience is helping cognitive scientists to learn how the mind stores and retrieves information. When we struggle to remember something, we will sometimes begin with the conviction that we remember a fragment, such as the first letter of a name.

This phenomenon demonstrates to researchers that information about a word or other kind of memory is likely to be stored in different locations in the brain: aural sound of a word in one location, meaning in another, and spelling in yet another. Somehow, they coalesce regularly and rapidly. But sometimes they don’t: we might know the meaning of a word that is trying to surface, but the word itself remains in hiding. The knowledge that our unconscious mind knows more than we consciously know, and knows it sooner than we know it, is an eerie thought. It brings to mind Antonio Damasio’s succinct statement of the tardiness of conscious knowledge: “We are always hopelessly late for consciousness” (127).

And sometimes the process of remembering leaves traces, clues of its mysterious origins and ways, demonstrating the imbalance between conscious and unconscious thought and proving once more that the unconscious mind knows more and knows it sooner than the conscious mind. And this is what really fascinates me: becoming aware that some pre-conscious part of my brain seems to be trying to tell me something, to throw little hints my way until the memory surfaces and I experience the eureka moment.

“I hate my birthday!”
A memorable instance of this kind of pre-conscious associative process occurred a few years ago when I was traveling with a friend in Europe. During our stay in Italy, we visited Francesco, a friend who lived near Padua. The three of us had a terrific visit. We chatted at his apartment for a while, and then Francesco showed us a printing press where he and some friends edited an anarchist newspaper.

Our next destination was the South of France to see friends in Montpellier. As the train passed through Provence, I gazed out the window at fields of poppies and lavender. I became aware that there was a memory that was trying to surface in my mind, but when I tried to remember what it was, I drew a blank. I knew that it was something that had made an impression on me, that it was somehow important to me. And whatever it was, it was tinged with sadness.

As I watched the colourful fields pass by, wondering about the elusive memory, the following phrase occurred to me:

      heavenly fields of poppy and lavender

This phrase gave rise to this sentence:

      But the people in the sky really love /
      to have dinner and to take a walk with you.

I knew this to be from an elegy for Frank O’Hara by Ted Berrigan.

Again I made an effort to recall the mysterious memory, but no other thoughts arrived. I still had the feeling that a memory wanted to surface. Then the feeling saddened and more words arrived:

      I hate that dog.

I remembered that sentence as the last line in an elegy for Ted Berrigan by Ron Padgett. The poem describes hearing a dog bark in the night and feeling the emptiness of Ted’s absence.

I thought it curious that both lines that surfaced in my mind were elegies for poets. Somewhere in my brain there must be a file with the label “elegies for poets of the second generation New York school.”

The clues from this mental file were leading me toward my memory, and the last clue, “I hate that dog,” was the catalyst that allowed me to remember what had been trying to surface:

      I hate my birthday.

On remembering these words, I experienced a eureka moment: this was the memory that had been lurking in the depths of my unconscious! It was also a poignant moment when I remembered what had occasioned Francesco’s speaking those words.

During our visit with Francesco, I showed him a cd that I had bought in Paris of the French anarchist singer Léo Ferré. Francesco told me that Léo Ferré had died several years before, in 1993. I was surprised and saddened, because although I didn’t know much about Ferré’s life, I had come to love the music of this “anarchanteur.”

Francesco then spoke of an Italian anarchist singer, Fabrizio de André, who had died just a couple of years earlier, the date of his death unfortunately coinciding with Francesco’s thirtieth birthday. So great was Francesco’s admiration for De André that after the singer’s death, he hated his birthday.

So the original elusive memory did eventually surface, but it took a circuitous path involving lateral associations. It was as though my brain were tossing little clues along the path: it knew what I didn’t know, and it seemed to be in dialogue with me, coyly leading me in the right direction.

It seems to me that the memory that “wanted” to surface was always the same memory: Francesco telling me of hating his birthday because De André had died on that day. I felt that this was so because of the eureka moment that I experienced when the memory finally surfaced. And the various memories that surfaced along the path to remembering that event were like stepping stones leading to Francesco’s statement about hating his birthday.

The first stepping stone was gazing at fields of poppies and lavender from the train and thinking of them as “heavenly.” “Heavenly” suggests the mythical abode of the dead, and the path that led from “heavenly fields of poppies and lavender” to “I hate my birthday” follows a certain logic having to do with remembering one’s fallen friends and hating something that one associates with that friend’s death. So the associative chain might look something like this:

lavender and poppy fields desire to remember

desire to remember heavenly fields

heavenly fields heaven

heaven friend’s death

friend’s death hate things reminding me of that death

hate things reminding me of that death hate birthday

If by chance you have actually made it to this point in my little essay, you may wonder at my meditating on this memory in such detail. If I do, it is because the more I find out about the workings of the mind, the more strange and wonderful it all seems. I find it so incredible that in our daily lives we make associations without thinking about them much. But if we stop to think about how the mind actually gets from A to B, things become very complicated very quickly!

There is just one more thing I want to consider. Earlier, I characterized the unconscious as having agency: it tossed little clues in my direction and coyly led me in the right direction. I know that it’s misleading to personify my unconscious that way. After all, is it really accurate to suppose that my unconscious “knew” the identity of the memory that was “trying” to surface and “concocted” a logical path of stepping stones for me to follow? If that were true, then why would my unconscious “withhold” the memory and tease me with clues?

It seems more likely that my conscious mind started guessing about the identity of the memory, shooting out trial electrical impulses to neurons that might be associated with the memory of Francesco hating his birthday. After all, the fact that the emotional aura of the memory was present from the beginning means that I knew something about the memory, just not the memory itself (perhaps similar to knowing that a word you’re trying to remember starts with the letter “b”). As Lehrer points out in the essay that I cited in Part I, the mind “makes guesses based upon the other information that it can recall.”

In other words, the meta-cognitive knowledge that I wanted to remember something was unable to link directly to “I hate my birthday.” Somehow, the direct link at that time was too weak. However, there were stronger links from “I hate my birthday” to the indirect categories that I listed above.

So perhaps my conscious mind got to “I hate my birthday” by guessing along a kind of zigzagging path. That scenario is certainly less eerie than imagining an unconscious with agency, regardless of whether it’s beneficent or malevolent! But it takes nothing away from the strangeness of the mind’s ways.

As a tribute to De André and Ferré, below are links to videos of each in concert.

Works Cited

Damasio, Antonio. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann: London, 1999.

Camille Martin

Part 1: From Motorcycle to Biopsy: The Messy Desk of the Mind

Copernicus, Darwin, Freud:
hacking away at the pedestal
(with a pit stop at Total Information Awareness)

Freud traces the history of scientific revolutions as one of successive blows to “the naïve self-love of men.” In one blow, Copernicus disabused humanity of its belief in the centrality of the earth in the grand cosmic scheme. In a second blow, Darwin knocked humanity from the pedestal of its belief in the divine creation of humans as privileged beings who rank far above animals and plants.

But Freud reserves the coup de grace dealt to “human megalomania” for “the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”

Freud’s reference to the “megalomanic” view of human consciousness brings to my mind that most sinister creation of the post-9/11 Bush administration: the Total Information Awareness Program (TIA), brainchild of John Poindexter and Brian Hicks, devoted to ferreting out information on the identity, location, and plans of terrorists. There is an aura of unreality to the hubris of their creepy fantasy of omniscience, which would be appropriate to the surveillance ministry of a totalitarian regime in a science fiction dystopia—say, 1984. “Total information awareness” also seems to me an apt, if hyperbolic, way to describe the folk-psychological tendency to attribute to consciousness greater powers of awareness, concentration, objectivity, and memory than are warranted by this relatively focused and limited aspect of cognition.

In a more historical vein, Enlightenment thinkers extolled human consciousness as a supremely rational “master in its own house.” The belief in the power and scope of consciousness must have erected an enormous pedestal for it—a butte might better describe it—because after decades of hacking away at it, scientists are still discovering ways in which our over-inflated assessment of consciousness is based on illusions. It’s humbling to read about the experiments that demonstrate the conscious mind’s limitations: working memory is more limited, awareness of perception is more selective, memory is more fallible and susceptible to distortion, and sensory perception is a more creative process than previously thought. These illusions remind me of the sobering truism that consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg of cognition.

And that iceberg beneath the surface, with its vast storehouse of information and its inner workings, remains for the most part tantalizingly out of reach. The experience of hypnogogic dreams sometimes gives me the feeling that I’m dipping into a part of its vastness and getting a glimpse of its machinations. But mostly I’m unaware of the means by which I’m constantly being fed bits and pieces from my unconscious mind by countless little creatures of the deeps.

The tip-of-the-tongue syndrome
A mental phenomenon that we all know as the “tip-of-the-tongue” feeling can give us insight into the mysterious relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. In a typical tip-of-the-tongue moment, we are unable to retrieve information that we are sure that we could remember if only we had access to it. But the link seems to be faulty, and we struggle. Perhaps we remember that the word we’re trying to remember begins with a “b,” and we might try different syllables beginning with that letter to see if we can trigger our memory. This kind of experience reveals to researchers some fundamental lessons about the way the brain is organized:

      One of the key lessons of tip-of-the-tongue research
      is that the human brain is a cluttered place. Our
      knowledge is filed away in a somewhat slapdash
      fashion, so that names are stored separately from
      faces and the sound of a word and the meaning of a
      word are kept in distinct locations. Sometimes when
      we forget something, the memory is not so much
      lost as misplaced.

      The messy reality of the mind contradicts the
      conventional metaphor of memory, which assumes
      that the brain is like a vast and well-organized file
      cabinet. According to this theory, we’re able to
      locate the necessary memory because it has been
      sorted according to some logical system. But this
      metaphor is misleading. The brain isn’t an immaculate
      file cabinet – it’s more like an untidy desk covered
      with piles of paper. (Lehrer)

If my memory is anything like my own office desk, I’m in deep trouble. But conducting experiments into the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can give us a glimpse into the way in which memory is actually stored—not neatly categorized but fragmented and scattered. In fact,

      the brain doesn’t have firsthand access to its own
      memories. Instead, it makes guesses based upon
      the other information that it can recall. For instance,
      if we can remember the first letter of someone’s
      name, then the conscious brain assumes that we
      must also know his or her name, even if we can’t
      recall it right away. This helps explain why people
      are much more likely to experience a tip-of-the-
      tongue state when they can recall more information
      about the word or name they can’t actually
      remember. (Lehrer)

In the study that Lehrer refers to, conducted by Lise Abrams, a person trying to recall the word “bandanna” can be successfully prompted with a word like “banish” because the latter word “activate[s] the same network of brain cells devoted to the sound” of the former. According to Abrams, tip-of-the-tongue experiences occur because the semantic connection is strong, but the phonological connection (the sound of the word) is weak. We have the feeling that we know what the word means, but we cannot speak the word.

And here’s where things get even more interesting: successful prompts need not be so direct. For example,

      Abrams has shown that showing people a picture
      of a motorcycle can help them remember the word
      “biopsy.” Because the idea of a motorcycle is
      connected in the brain to the word “bike,”
      which shares a first syllable with “biopsy,” the
      seemingly irrelevant cue becomes an effective hint.

Even when the subjects, asked to name the object in the picture, said “motorcycle” instead of “bike,” the tip-of-the-tongue problem of remembering “biopsy” was more frequently resolved than when a picture of, say, a helicopter was shown. So apparently, the proximity of “motorcycle” and “bike” in the brain can trigger the associative chain from “bike” to “biopsy,” even though one would be hard pressed to come up with an obvious associative link between “motorcycle” and “biopsy.”

Lyn Hejinian’s “incompletely reciprocal” lexicon
This kind of information flow reminds me of Lyn Hejinian’s remarks in “The Rejection of Closure” about lexical disjunction:

      Even words in storage, in the dictionary, seem
      frenetic with activity, as each individual entry
      attracts to itself other words as definition, example,
      and amplification. Thus, to open the dictionary at
      random, mastoid attracts nipplelike, temporal, bone,
      ear, and behind. Turning to temporal we find that
      the definition includes time, space, life, world,
      transitory, and near the temples, but, significantly,
      not mastoid. There is no entry for nipplelike, but
      the definition for nipple brings over protuberance,
      breast, udder, the female, milk, discharge,
      mouthpiece, and nursing bottle, and not mastoid,
      nor temporal, nor time, bone, ear, space, or world.
      It is relevant that the exchanges are incompletely

Although the analogy between Hejinian’s lexical disjunction and memory’s associative process isn’t precise, the idea in common is the sidereal associations that produce a circuitous path: the two degrees of separation between “mastoid” and “transitory,” and between “motorcycle and “biopsy,” result in two words with wildly different meanings but nontheless with a filament of associations connecting them. And it is possible for a chain of very selective indirect associations to lead us to the word that was on the tip of our tongue.

Tomorrow, Part II:
“I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?

Works Cited

Abrams, Lise. “Tip-of-the-Tongue States Yield Language Insights.” American Scientist. May/June 2008.

Lehrer, Jonah. “What’s that name?” The Boston Globe. 1 Jun 2008.

Camille Martin