Editor's note: Brain Basics from Scientific American Mind is a series of short video primers on the brain and how we feel, think and act. Below is a synopsis of the first video in the series written by a guest on this blog, Roni Jacobson, a science journalist based in New York City.
By Roni Jacobson
Being unable to recall a word on the tip of your tongue is frustrating. A retrieval cue, such as the first letter of that word or a similar word that you see or hear, can trigger an association that brings the forgotten word to mind. The more we practice activating the associations between words and their spellings and meanings, the stronger the connections become. If we use or encounter a word—or person, object or place—rarely, we will have trouble retrieving that information. When we try to recall a word or other memory, our brain activity differs depending on whether we are successful. In successful memory retrieval, the hippocampus lights up and the brain recreates the pattern of activity that occurred at the time the original memory was encoded. Recreating the environment or mental state in which we learned the information initially can therefore be a helpful way to draw out stubborn associations.