Presque Vu

March 28th, 2013

Have you ever had a thought about something which you can describe but are unable to name? Although it’s more common than you might think, we barely understand the causes which bring about this phenomenon.

Often referred to as tip-of-the-tongue, this failure to recall a piece of information is quite common. First described (although not in name) by William James in 1890, it was also discussed by Sigmund Freud, who postulated that it was due to unconscious thoughts and impulses. Research published by Roger Brown and David McNeil in 1966 is seen as the foundational study for this phenomenon.

So then, what do we know about presque vu? Very little. We do know it’s universal, or in other words: It occurs across all cultures, even if a particular language doesn’t have an equivalent idiom. Even people who use sign language report “tip-of-the-hand” experiences. There are many theories which attempt to explain the cause of why this failure to recall happens, but none have yet proven true.

All of this is very fascinating, but one thing leaves me curious:

Say I have forgotten the name of a popular actor. I know the names of several movies he appears in. I can recall how he appears, acts, and talks. But I cannot remember his name.

Have I completely forgotten his name? Or, is it stored away in some inaccessible part of my mind, only to be renewed once I come across it in writing? What if my mind then retroactively tricks itself into thinking that it remembers his name, but in actuality it didn’t?

The thought that our brains could trick us into believing something that we didn’t actually know is, to put simply, quite scary.

These are not easy questions; They have no easy answers. Until we can come to a better understanding of how the brain works, the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon will remain a mystery.

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