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Presque vu happens when a person can't quite recall something they want to remember, such as a name or a place. The term is French for "almost seen," and accurately describes the sensation where the brain can just about retrieve a memory but doesn't quite make it. It's commonly referred to as tip of the tongue phenomenon (TOT). Presque vu increases with age but keeping the brain healthy and engaged will preserve memory for quite a long time.
Adults most often experience presque vu and it can occur from young adulthood through old age. It also seems to be a universal experience, as many other languages have expressions referring to this phenomenon. TOT can occur in people with epilepsy or other brain conditions that affect nerves in the left hemisphere, where the language center lies. This does not mean, however, that an episode of presque vu means such a disorder is present.
The brain stores information in both short-term and long-term memory by means of encoding. Short-term memory only holds information for a finite time, up to 30 seconds, until the brain gives it further attention. Then it can be stored in long-term memory. Over time, if memories aren’t accessed, they can fade. Encoding failures and interference can make it harder to form long-term memories, which then causes difficulty remembering the information.
Two main theories and a number of sub-theories have been proposed to explain why TOT happens: direct access and inferential theory. Both point to a weakness or misdirection of the memory around the target word or phrase. It is then retrieved by removal of an inhibition blocking recall of the word or accessing cues that prompt recollection and break the presque vu state.
Metacognition is conscious, sometimes controllable awareness of knowledge and the ability to manipulate it in order to retrieve information and engage it. Metamemory, a subset of metacognition, has to do with monitoring one’s memory and using strategies to improve it. For example, mnemonic devices can aid students in remembering certain concepts by inventing a reminder phrase. This can help them get around a presque vu event when it happens as they are testing, or if a particular term or phrase is difficult for them to remember.
While presque vu increases with age, there is much people can do to keep their brains in good shape as they get older. Learning new concepts strengthens associations within the neural network, making it easier to retrieve memories. Priming techniques, where recall of target words is stimulated with similar concepts and words, is especially helpful for older brains. A good diet, managing health conditions and plenty of socialization and physical activity are good for maintaining memory into later years.
Be careful to differentiate between TOT as most people experience it and Presque Vu. The latter is a far more intense and distracting experience. An episode will usually begin with deja vu. Upon noticing that deja vu is occurring, one becomes vaguely aware of an important pattern, or the memory of one. Not only does one feel like one has experienced this before, but that there is a deeper underlying pattern which connects this episode with others. From this comes a sense that one was previously working on solving something, something fundamental and of incredible importance. There is the strong sense of an impending epiphany if only one could work out how to fit together the pieces. You try to
pick up the trail of a long forgotten train of thought. You struggle to make the concepts that feel like puzzle pieces into objects you can mentally manipulate: lots of "I remember something about x or was it y" accompanied by a sense that this information is vital.
The pieces of the puzzle are both slippery to keep in mind but also break down to further patterns to be solved. You never get the epiphany. Nor do you manage to solve the concepts spinning round in your head. As you grasp one concept it only reveals itself as a piece of a larger meta puzzle. And so you chase the rabbit down the hole. Give it enough attention and it uses every ounce of your brain power. For me it often precedes a migraine.
You learn to ignore it, or you come out feeling confused, frustrated and tired, having sat in a near trance for an hour. Yet the feeling sits there, like a forgotten family birthday: "wasn't there something you were supposed to be doing?"
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