Illustration by Angelica Alzona

I always blank on the word “reconcile.” Ok, not right now. In fact, ever since I started working on this post, the word has popped into my head with little friction, likely because I have forced myself to remember what exactly it was that I was writing about. However, this sort of recall doesn’t detract from the strangeness of never being able to come up with the word in conversation. As you’ll see, remembering the word in conjunction with this assignment might actually support the explanation behind why I forget it in other settings.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Reconcile: It’s just the right level of cumbersome—not so simple that I’m worried it’s a sign of a stroke but not so esoteric that I can chalk it up to having a limited vocabulary. When I blank on it, I get the sort of tip-of-the-tongue sensation that makes me wonder if there are some crossed wires in my brain. I know that I know the word, I just can’t tell you anything about it.

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It feels like such a peculiar and specific mental glitch, but likely this has happened to you, too. And if it’s happening to all of us, surely there’s an explanation. So I tried to find it.

The Background Research

Initially, the problem seemed to be that someone might repeatedly forget the same word over and over again. I looked for professors who had done research in the subject, and reached out to several linguistic and neurology experts who confirmed that they were aware of this personally and anecdotally, but didn’t know of any research on the subject. At least not since Sigmund Freud’s 1904 Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which analyzes what separates normal so-called “slips of the tongue” from clinical word loss. Academic journals like Cognitive Neuropsychology and American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology took me down a rabbit hole of cases involving clinical “anomia,” a medical affliction that refers to specific amnesia of everyday words. Studies that described word-finding difficulty as, “the harbinger of degenerative disease: the progressive aphasias,” seemed to overstate the problem, since, by definition, the language failures classified as aphasias result from some form of brain damage.

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An old Slate article considered an interesting adjacent phenomenon, too—i.e. when you forget how to spell a basic word or, tangentially, when a correctly spelled word starts to look all wrong to you. Apparently that has something to do with when the mind goes from seeing words as meaningful whole entities to focusing too intently on the constituent parts—similar to what they call semantic satiation, or, “the tendency for words to lose their meaning and aura of correctness when repeated over and over again.”

This was interesting, but not exactly helpful for our purposes. Onwards.

With academic journals and confounded professors behind me, I reached out to the expert (Dr. Charles A. Weaver) from the Slate article, given that the knowledge required to comment on these similar issues seemed obviously relevant. (Furthermore, Dr. Charles A. Weaver is a professor and Chairman of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University.) I also stumbled across some research about tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—which is exactly what you think it is—conducted back in 2008 by McMaster University’s Dr. Karin Humphreys, and contacted her as well.

So What’s The Deal?

“It’s probably nothing clinical,” was the first thing Dr. Weaver told me. He asked if there was an alternate word I always find myself lingering on when trying to remember “reconcile.” Not always, but sometimes I find myself coming up with reconvene, even though I know that’s not correct. This made sense to him.

It’s a word that’s either semantically similar, means something similar, or equally likely, it’s superficially similar. It starts with an R or it’s the same length. So it’s got either syntactic similarity, it looks the same, or it’s semantically similar somehow, it’s a synonym. And every time you retrieve the wrong version, you make it that much more likely that you’re going to retrieve the wrong word going forward.

Basically, it’s a self-perpetuating problem.

It’s a classic interference phenomenon. It’s like if you always misremember that it was Michael Keaton in the most recent Batman movie than you’ll [think], “Oh, I know it’s not him but I always think of him.”

So every time I try to think of the word reconcile and instead settle on reconvene, I reinforce the pathways in my brain that associate the two with this process. Thinking, “What’s the word I always forget?” will trigger a response that remembers reconvene instead of reconcile. Dr. Weaver described it as “the pink elephant phenomena”—if you try not think about the pink elephant, you can’t help but think about it. I can never seem to come up with the word reconcile without thinking about the fact that I always struggle to retrieve it.

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I suspect this is why I have had no trouble remembering reconcile in relation to this blog—I had written it down in preparation for the pitch and said it many times over in conversations and interviews related to the work. I wasn’t associating it with the definition—to which I had unwittingly attached a trap door leading to reconvene—but instead with a new set of triggers.

Dr. Humphrey’s work is not predicated on replacing one word with another, but rather that even the simple act of forgetting a word could be explained the same way:

Anything you practice, you get better at. You reinforce that thing. The way we speak is kind of like following a series of pathways—you go from the idea that’s in your head, this nonverbal idea, then you have to go and find a word for that, then you have to go and find the sounds for that. So it’s like you’re kind of traversing these little pathways. Every time you do this, you dig that pathway just a little tiny bit deeper. So if you go down the wrong pathway, you’re digging yourself in and learning the wrong pathway. If you strengthen the wrong pathway, the next time you go to recall that word, you’re more likely to go down the wrong pathway.

She said that study participants struggle with forgetting the same word when retested on it after a week, or 24 hours—or even immediately. Even after the word they “blanked-on” was supplied to them, participants immediately re-blanked. It certainly seemed to be certain word-specific.

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How does it all start? Dr. Humphreys said blanking is more frequent when you’re tired, or drunk, or dealing with words that don’t come up as often in your conversation. Dr. Weaver said that some people speculate that we deal with this kind of anomia all the time, and just substitute workable synonyms in on the fly, without ever noticing. For example, it’s likely that I forgot reconcile and either replaced it with reconvene (or not!) in this process, and by fixating on the fact that I’d failed to find an appropriate replacement, ultimately strengthened one of these “wrong pathways.”

Can It Be Solved?

Dr. Weaver explains that the tendency to do this is rooted in a couple of different factors.

The anxiety that you feel, where you go, Oh no, I’m going to come up with the wrong word again—what you’re doing is setting up the conditions that are much more likely to make it happen. The best way you can do this going forward is to never worry about it again.

Dr. Humphreys said that if I overcome the “blanking” often enough, I’ll wear down the correct pathways and make it more likely that my brain gets from the definition to the sound with ease. But, really, it’s nothing to worry about. “These tip-of-the-tongue states, they really don’t mean you’re ‘losing it,’”she says. “Everyone loses a bit of that phonological stuff. It’s when you llose the meaning, the semantic stuff, that’s more of a worry.”

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Dr. Weaver was less hopeful. “Probably, you’re just going to have trouble with the word reconcile for the rest of your life.”

Crap.

Life is full of odd occurrences that happen just often enough to make you wonder Is It Normal? We’ll be examining some of those strange quirks here, and welcome any and all discussion of your own. Shoot us an email at adequateman@deadspin.com, or drop your query in the comments blow.