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The Tip of the Tongue Syndrome👅and the Earworm👂🎶

Posted by Trivia – The Spice of Life on 24/07/2021

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There are always two sides of a coin. Today’s post too is about two syndromes which are diametrically opposite. In the case of the first, you are desperate to recall and in the second, you are trying your best to obliterate. The first syndrome, where we have trouble recalling (words) is called Lethologica. In common parlance, we call it the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. The second syndrome is called Involuntary Musical Imagery in scientific jargon; it is colloquially called earworm, sticky music or stuck song syndrome.

Both these syndromes are very common. Have you not experienced that moment when you know what exactly you want to say but are unable to utter it? This is not because you are tongue tied but because the word just escapes you. It is a case of being so near, yet so far. You know the word and it is floating all around you but you still cannot say it. You perhaps even know the alphabet that it begins with. The word is there on the tip of your tongue but you are unable to blurt it out. This is what is called the tip-of-the-tongue (or T-O-T) phenomenon or lethologica. Lethologica is a word derived from classical Greek. The Greek words are lethe (forgetfulness) and logos (word). In Greek mythology, Lethe was also one of the five rivers of the underworld where the souls of the dead drank to forget all earthly memories.

Experts say that these slips of memory occur when the answer is a place, person or a word that we don’t use very often. Have you not faced trouble recalling the name of a school friend, though you remember her/his face very distinctly? Have you not been frustrated trying to recall the name of a singer/actor/actress whose face is clearly etched in your memory? I had a friend calling me recently, to ask which song it was that I had played on a radio show a year ago, which he had liked a lot and had even texted me about the same during the show. He was just not able to remember the song and as a result, he was unable to focus on his work. When I told him which song it was, there was a sigh of relief that I heard from him. In fact, this is typically what we feel – relief – the moment we recall the word/song/name either on our own or with someone’s assistance. While researching for this post, I came across the lines of a poem by Robert Kelly (2009), “The Will of Achilles” – which are pretty apt.

As if waiting always for another word—
“at the tip of the tongue” we say, one thinks
of all the places tongues have been
and what they learned there, names
they cried out ill-silenced by the deed itself.

While everyone grapples with the T-O-T syndrome once in a while, it is said that this worsens with age. Also the more you try to remember, the more your brain resists, as it learns the mistake of not remembering the word rather than the word itself. The best thing to do, therefore, is to just take a break; the word/name/song will come back to you when you are not thinking about it. Or else talk to someone who is likely to know what you are trying to recall.

If forgetting is a problem, so is remembering. That brings me to the earworm. Earworms are mostly associated with popular songs or tunes. An earworm, also called sticky music or stuck song syndrome is where after listening to an appealing piece of music often or repeatedly, the tune is stuck in your head. You may be unable to dislodge it and you might even inadvertently start singing it out loud. The song haunts you all day for no reason. It clings to you no matter where you go and what you do. This Pooh – ism sums up the feeling perfectly.

“Hums aren’t things which you get; they get you.”
—Winnie the Pooh
― Disney Book Group, Christopher Robin: The Little Book of Pooh-isms: With help from Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, and Tigger, too!

According to experts, the triggers for this could be many. Strong emotional states can serve as triggers, such as hearing a song when experiencing extreme happiness or anger, as well as visual stimuli. Your brain can even start playing catchy tunes when you are working on a boring or repetitive task; the simpler and more repetitive a tune is, the more likely it is to get embedded in your memory. Lady Gaga’s songs are listed amongst the top earworms.

Many of the item songs of the Hindi films in recent years have abominable lyrics but catchy tunes. There is every chance that you could find yourself singing them even if you do not want to! I remember how my brother as a kid sang the opening line of a Telugu song the whole day. The song was a classic but hearing him sing just the first line, without any respite was rather irritating. By the end of the day, we were all exasperated! You can imagine how deep seated this memory is, for, I can, even after more than 30 years, recall the song that he was hooked to.

Infographic With Cartoon Illustration of Man and Woman Listing Ways To Get Rid of Earworms
Image Courtesy :

If there is a problem, there has to be a solution too. Experts suggest that listening to the whole song helps to get rid of the loop in your head. Doing something more engaging or just ignoring the earworm could also help. Chewing gum can help too because when a song is stuck in our heads, it is almost like we are singing along with it. If you make your mouth chew gum, that can banish the earworm.

As I sign off, I shall only say that the irony is that we tend to forget what we ought to remember and remember what is better forgotten.

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