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5 Tips to Tame Word-Finding Difficulties

Harness a hidden opportunity to boost your brain power.

Kasia Bialasiewicz/Bigstockphoto
Source: Kasia Bialasiewicz/Bigstockphoto

People of all ages experience word-finding difficulties — those inconvenient "brain blips" that occur when you cannot retrieve the word 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:

1. 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 retrieve that elusive word in the moment. Instead, think of alternative words to describe what you want to say, and keep talking. Don’t worry if you are not as succinct as you intended. By continuing to talk, you give yourself time to add the word into the conversation later if it comes to mind. Continuing to talk also allows you to maintain the valuable social connection of your conversation. So, how do you pick alternative words without compromising conversational flow?

2. Substitute a Synonym. Let’s pretend you and I are talking about classic movies, and you intend to say “I think Cary 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.

If you happen to know the letter or sound of the word you want to say, try to use a synonym that starts with that sound – for example, you might say “superb” instead of “sublime.” By substituting a synonym with the same first letter or sound, you are activating the neuronal pathways in the same geographic neighborhood of the brain where your target word is hiding, which may bring it to mind faster.

If you can’t think of the first letter or sound of your target word, substitute 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.

3. Let it percolate. The feeling of inner tension when you can’t retrieve a word often leads your brain to search for it until – Voila! – that elusive, perfect word sometimes jolts to mind in the middle of a meeting, your commute, or some other random time when you least expect it. The brain’s word search party often works 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.

4. Repackage it. After you figure out that elusive word, it’s time to repackage it in your brain so you can access it more easily next time. This two step process might help: First, intentionally differentiate it from similar sounding words (for example, picture how the printed word “sublime” is shorter than but similar to “subliminal”), and add pictures to embellish it (you might imagine a submarine next to a lime — “sublime”!).

Then, repeat the newly-packaged word a few times a day to strengthen the connections in your brain that will help you retrieve it later. Purposely use that word more often in the next few days (try it today and tomorrow - see how many times can you fit the word “sublime” into your conversations), and notice that it becomes easier to recall each time. The next time you have a word-finding difficulty, repackage and repeat that elusive word.

Have fun with this process, and be creative, as the enjoyment you feel may also help to strengthen your recall!

5. Boost your brain health. Exercising, managing stress, following a brain-healthy diet, and keeping yourself mentally active builds a healthier brain. And a healthier brain often gives rise to quicker word-finding, among other skills. In particular, good sleep provides a word-finding advantage. For most adults, at least 7 hours of sleep is needed to optimize brain performance. When we are sleep deprived – especially chronically – our brain begins to function like a sluggish switchboard operator, making slow and incorrect connections, and increasingly putting our thoughts – and words – on hold. 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 clients over the years, and they work for me too! Please comment below to share your experience with these or any other word-finding strategies that you have found to be helpful!

Copyright 2016 Michelle Braun

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