On a recent trip, at a random social moment I found myself looking for a word. It was one of those “tip of the tongue” situations where you know that you know the word but you can’t immediately access it. Prior experience with my brain taught me to let the “inner google” keep searching, while refocusing on something else in the meantime. In the past, ten or so minutes later, after “letting go of conscious search,” the “inner google” would fetch the word in question.
In this particular case, the word I was searching for had to do with a Japanese wooden bath, a particular four letter word. That’s what the conversation was about. The conversation came and went but I kept trying to find the word in my mind – a fascinating metacognitive task… Who is this who is searching oneself for a word? Who is this who will find the word? How is the word stored? How can these little neural creatures inside of “me” encode a word and look for it?
I have a very clear memory of the first time I experienced this – it was with my father, long time ago, while on a subway ride in Moscow. He was trying to remember a known literary character and he said that it was a “horse-sounding surname.” He kept trying to actively remember but gave up. I too was trying to remember the term (we were both familiar with the book in question). A few minutes later, the name “came” to me. I remembered! Without trying!
Since then I understood that it’s exactly “not trying” that makes this work. You “plug in” the “search intention” into this “inner google” and it does the work. Usually, the word “comes” to you – me – within a few minutes.
This time it took several weeks… Just now the word came to me… Furo – the Japanese word for a wooden bath. I started looking for this word in my mind a few weeks ago, while on a trip abroad, and now – weeks later – the “inner google” fetched it.
Why did it take so long? Am I losing my myelin sheath? Did I not sufficiently charge up my “search intention” with another minute of concentration? Did the word – and the underlying neurons – not want to be found? Who is playing this game of hide-and-seek with oneself?
One thing is clear to me: this word-finding difficulty is also a self-finding difficulty.
Mind – a fascinating terra incognita.