Presque Vu: the Facts for You!

Lucy Hirschenberger

Why is this interesting?

Have you ever been in a conversation where you simply forgot a word, but you know you've known it before? Or maybe in class you raised your hand and started talking, but one of the words you were looking for seemed to disappear into thin air? This phenomenon can be called three things:

1) "Tip of the Tongue"

2) Presque Vu

3) Lethologica (the psychological disorder that stops a person from remembering key points, words, etc. in conversations)

Now you know that there is science behind those little frustrating slips when that word escapes your mind right when you need it. :)

What exactly is Presque Vu?

This is the phenomenon where you cannot retrieve a word, but there may be snippets of recall, like the first letter, that can come to mind. It is actually very common, and can happen to people an average of 1-4 times a week.

It is referred to as "tip of the tongue" because it feels as if the word is right there but just out of reach enough to cause you to not remember.

Inside the Brain

The mechanism that some say is responsible for Presque Vu is phonological blocking. This is where a person will try to think about a word but another similar-sounding word comes up in the brain and blocks their access to the word they wanted.

Another theory is that because a word is kept in different parts of the brain based on components, such as length and sound, when the brain doesn't connect all of them the word won't come to you. However, some recollection like how long it is can come to knowledge.

The other, more widely accepted theory is that TOTs are due to the infrequency of using those particular words, since the brain has a harder time accessing words you don't use often.

Experts consider TOTs (tip of the tongues) as metacognitive, meaning the process is part of the "awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes". *

*definition taken from dictionary

Important Research

Karen Emmorey and her team at San Diego State University compared bilingual speakers and people who could speak English and sign ASL. The beginning hypothesis was that bilingual people have more "tip of the tongue" moments than people who only speak one language, therefore English speakers who can sign ASL shouldn't have those slips because the signs and words don't "sound" the same.

Their findings, on the contrast, showed that both the bilinguals and English/signers both had TOTs and "finger TOTs" about as often as the other.

This research came to the conclusion that the phonological blocking theory actually does not cause TOTs.

Some Extra Info

- A more extreme form of TOT is caused by aphasia, which is caused by brain injuries, like a stroke.

- People like to joke about Presque Vu, saying things like "I'm having a senior moment!" or "Brain Fart!"

- Presque Vu is actually a french wording meaning "almost seen".

Learn More

Click to find out about Presque Vu from Columbia University!