People of all ages experience word-finding difficulties – those inconvenient ‘brain blips’ that occur when you cannot retrieve the perfect word or specific name that you really want to say. There are few things more frustrating than having to halt mid-conversation or mid-meeting when you hit a word roadblock. Word-finding difficulties happen to the average person multiple times per day, and increase with age. In rare situations, they may be a symptom of a brain disorder. Talk to your healthcare provider if word-finding difficulties are significant and get progressively worse over time, or are accompanied by worsening memory problems. But rest assured that for most of us, word finding difficulties are a shared experience.

Luckily, there are some effective ways to tame that tip of the tongue phenomenon:

  • Keep Talking! It’s natural to pause or stop talking when you experience a word-finding difficulty – after all, your free-flowing thoughts have just come to a screeching halt. However, pausing doesn’t usually help to retrieve that elusive word when you need it the most (if it comes to mind, it’s often after a delay). Instead, think of alternative words in the moment to describe what you want to say, and keep talking. Don’t worry if you are not as succinct as you intended. Often the act of continuing to talk brings the word to mind faster than stopping to search for it. Why? Because when you use alternative words, you are activating the neuronal pathways in the same geographic neighborhood of the brain where your target word is hiding, which can make it spring up faster. Continuing to talk also allows you to maintain the valuable social connection of your conversation.
  • Substitute a Synonym. Let’s pretend you and I are having a conversation about classic movies, and you intend to say “I think Carey Grant was the most sublime actor of his day.“ However, when you get to the word “sublime,” you hit a word roadblock. It’s time to substitute a synonym. Your substitute might be very close to your intended word – perhaps “superb” – or it could be a more commonly used word that still gets the point across, such as “terrific”; “amazing”; or “wonderful.” Either way, you communicated your point, and I as your listener probably never even noticed your clever synonym substitution.
  • Let it percolate. The feeling of inner tension that results when you can’t retrieve a word often leads your brain to search for it until – Voila! – that elusive, perfect word jolts to mind in the middle of a shower, nap, your commute, or some other random time when you least expect it. Have you ever noticed that the harder you try to think of a word, the harder it is to retrieve it? The brain’s word search party likes to be independent, and seems to work best when we are not directing it. However, if the search party cannot locate the word after awhile, don’t hesitate to give it a map by looking up the word. Then repeat the elusive word and link it to similar words, so that you strengthen your memory of it. Purposely use that word more often in the next few days (see how many times can you fit the word “polyglot” into your daily conversations), and notice that the word comes easier to you each time.
  • Sleep. Being well rested gives you a word-finding advantage. For most adults, at least 7 hours of sleep is needed to build your brain’s buffer and allow it to function well. When we are sleep deprived – especially for weeks and months – our brain starts to function like a sluggish switchboard operator, making slow and incorrect connections, and increasingly putting our thoughts on hold.
  • Boost your brain health. Exercising, managing stress, following a brain-healthy diet, and keeping yourself mentally active builds healthier brain tissue. And healthier brain tissue often gives rise to quicker word-finding, memory, and attention, among other stellar skills. Building brain health is a long-term investment that pays dividends, and it is never too late to start. Stay tuned for details in future postings!

These tips have worked for many of my patients over the years, and they work for me too! Please comment below to share your experience with these tips or any other word-finding strategies that you have found to be helpful!

*The Information provided is for educational purposes only, and is not medical advice.

Copyright 2016 Michelle Braun

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