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Gesturing and Tip of the Tongue: How flailing your arms can cure a TOT state

Do you ever think of a word or phrase and you know you know it, you just can’t seem to find it? You’re frustrated and want so badly to be able to say the word, one might even say it’s at the tip of your tongue. This feeling is called a tip-of-the-tongue state, or the TOT phenomena. It’s likely that on top on this frustrating experience, you are flailing your hands around trying to gesture the word at the tip of your tongue. Although you may look strange doing so, gesturing may actually be the thing that helps you retrieve that word you so desperately want to access.

tip of the tongueGestures, which are body or limb movements, can be characterized as an element of a word’s meaning in some
one’s mental representation, or bank of knowledge. Humans often pair certain gestures with different words based on a possible function or shape of a word that is an object

For example, for the word ‘brush’, you may run your hands through you hair. This hand gesture is associated with the word ‘brush’ because it is paired with the function of a brush, located in your mental representation. Because of this association, it is possible to find yourself gesturing the functions of a word even though you cannot actually access what that word is. Luckily for those frustrated by TOT states, gesturing can help retrieve the word that is difficult to access.

Two different studies were done to connect gesturing and word retrieval. One study by Frick-Horbury and Guttentag found that participants recalled more words when they could gesture but that there no significant increase in TOT states resolved. However, another study by Beattie and Coughlan found that there was no increase in recalled words when participants could gesture. Yet, when participants could gesture, they resolved more TOT states than those who couldn’t gesture. With different findings from Frick-Horbury and Guttentag (1998) and Beattie and Coughlan (1999) it was apparent that more research had to be done to understand the connection between gestures and word retrieval. Therefore, Timothy Pring, Foteini Theocharopoulou, Naomi Cocks and Lucy T. Dipper decided to take this information and test how age affected the type and frequency of gestures made during TOT states.

The study, named TOT Phenomena: Gesture Production in Younger and Older Adults, tested two groups of participants. One group contained participants ages 18-30 while the other one consisted of participants ages 60-75. Each group was instructed to complete two tasks, a naming task and a narrative task. First, participants were presented a picture of an object three times. The picture was accompanied by a written and audio pseudo word, or made up word as well as a made up function. Next up were the two tasks.

pseudo-word-identifcationIn the naming task, participants were asked to name the object and the function when they saw the object again, void of the pseudo word. Participants were then given small cues to help induce a TOT state when they could not retrieve the word. In the narrative task, participants were asked to describe what they saw in four different videos where the object was being used. In both experiments, participants were being video tapped so that Pring et al. could observe their gestures. Experimenters observed two types of gestures while the tasks were being completed. The first, iconic gestures, depict semantic knowledge or meaning and function, such as the hairbrush gesture. The second, non-iconic gestures, do not depict any concrete characteristics of the word.

The results of this experiment showed that both groups frequently gestured when entering the TOT state. More specifically, participants had more iconic gestures than noniconic gestures. The more TOT states a person had, the more they gestured to help them locate the word. This supported the theory that gestures do have a connection to our mental representation of a word. To help access the pseudo words they studied, participants gestured the function and meanings of these fake words.

However, what was interesting was what they found regarding TOT states. It would make sense that the amount of TOT states a person has increases with age, right? You’re getting older, you’re brain isn’t as sharp as it used to be, it must be natural! Well, Pring and Dipper found that this isn’t always the case! Yes, the older participants did experience more TOT states in the naming task than did the younger participants. However, they also found that the older participants actually had fewer TOT states in the narrative task. To explain this interesting finding, experimenters looked into the type of learning the two groups were participating in. The younger group, with those sharp minds, was making the attempt to encode, or input the information into their memory. When it came to the narrative task, they actively searched for the information they encoded and gestured the functions of the pseudo words that were now in their knowledge base. On the other hand, the older group circumlocuted in the narrative task, explaining what they saw in an unnecessary amount of words while avoiding the pseudoword. When they circumlocuted, they did not try and access the pseudo word, therefore their circumlocution was not accompanied by iconic gestures. This is because they did not make the effort to memorize the pseudoword. The difference in learning and approaching the tasks reflected the difference in age and memory ability.

Despite these differences, it is clear that with TOT states come iconic gestures. So, the next time your friends are making fun of you for waving your hands around when you’re experiencing a TOT state, you don’t have to use the excuse “It’s not my fault, I’m Italian!” Simply let them know you’re just doing everything you can to access that nagging word you know you know. Guess what, your hands are helping!

Also check out my peer’s blog on how gestures help us explain things we can not articulate and how gesturing can actually enhance learning!

Pring, T., Dipper, L. T., Theocharopoulou, F., & Cocks, N. (2015). TOT Phenomena: Gesture Production in Younger and Older Adults. Psychology and Aging, 30(2), 245-252.




  1. December 10th, 2015 at 10:06 | #1

    One thing that I thought of when you noted that the older group had fewer TOT states in the narrative task because they circumlocuted was that they were unconsciously taking advantage of a strategy to get at semantic information. One of the accounts that we talked about in class was an attentional account. Older adults seem to be using a controlled process to direct attention towards a certain semantic network area. They talk around the word, attempting to both hit on a related word that may activate the missing word through the spreading activation model and direct attention towards specific areas of meaning.

    It also occurred to me when reading this that gesturing differs on an individual level. Some people constantly use gestures to augment their speech while others don’t gesture at all. I was wondering if the researchers established a baseline for gesturing that took into account individual differences in gesturing pattern? Furthermore, do people originally tend towards iconic or noniconic gestures to begin with? In general, I think I tend more towards noniconic gestures when I’m in a TOT state, where I move my hand in a circular motion in an attempt to keep my thinking going and to hopefully reach the right answer. So finding some sort of baseline is important for comparison.

  2. mekopp
    December 9th, 2015 at 20:50 | #2

    Your blog entry reminds me of things we talked about in class that are related to memory and learning. Memory tests can only measure accessibility of knowledge and not its availability. A study by Tulving and Pearlstone (1966) on this subject matter asked participants to study a list of words. Those words belonged to different categories such as vehicles, animals, etc.. The results showed that participants recall rates were higher in the cued recall condition (when the experimenter told them about the categories) in comparison to the free recall conditions (in which the participants continued to be unaware of the categories). This study showed that when given a cue, people are able to consciously search through their memory resulting in better memory retrieval due to facilitation.

    The study you talk about (Well, Pring & Dipper, 2015) is interesting because it shows that we unconsciously make gestures that help us retrieve wanted information. The storage of memory is strongly context dependent and by acting out a gesture related to the learned pseudo word an additional cue is created. This helps by providing access to the wanted information stored in memory.

    I never consciously thought about it until now but I think that I actually use more gestures when speaking in another language than my mother tongue. Therefore, it would be interesting to conduct a similar study when people are asked to study words in their non-native language.

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