Home > Aging, Memory > Gesturing and Tip of the Tongue: How flailing your arms can cure a TOT state

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

tip of the tongue


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 phenomenon. 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. This TOT phenomenon is when information is available in your memory it is just not accessible. When in a TOT state, a person is experiencing blocking, where they are not able to retrieve information that is known. The information is being blocked. 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. Don’t worry, you don’t just look like a crazy person for no rhyme or reason! You’re trying to find that nagging word!
Gestures, which are body or limb movements, can be characterized as an element of a word’s meaning in a person’s mental representation. A person’s mental representation is a bank of everything they know; it is what our cognitive procsses are operating on and it is a topic in our mind that represents something in our reality. Humans often pair certain gestures with different words based on possible functions or shapes of a word that is an inanimate object, or actions of a word that is an animate object.

For example, for the word ‘brush’, you may run your hands through your 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.

After finding a number of studies that linked gesturing and word retrieval, or being able to access a word in your memory, Timothy Pring, Foteini Theocharopoulou, Naomi Cocks and Lucy T. Dipper decided to elaborate on this past research. When word retrieval fails and we are not able to access a word, we are experiencing a TOT state. However, when word retrieval works, we are experiencing recall and remembering and accessing the word in our memory. Pring, Theocharopoulu, Cocks and Dipper decided to analyze gestures, recall and TOT states and test how age affected the type and frequency of gestures made during TOT states. They incorporated age into the study as  older adults tend to complain about TOT states more frequently and their varying memory ability to younger adults plays a key role.

The study, named TOT Phenomena: Gesture Production in Younger and Older Adults, tested two groups of participants. One group included 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. However, they first participated in a learning phase where they 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 or action. For example, the pseudo word “vonk” would coincide with a melting function. If someone were to be melting something like wax, the participant would need to use the work vonk to describe that action. After learning the pseudo words, participants were presented with the two tasks.

In the naming task, participants were asked to name the object and the function when they saw the object again without the pseudo word present. When participants could not remember a word, they were given enough cues to induce a TOT state, but not enough to allow them to completely recall the word. Experimenters wanted to induce these TOT states to see how frequent participants gestured in this state. 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, such as putting one’s hands at shoulder level showing frustration and submission to the TOT state.



Both groups frequently gestured when entering the TOT state. More specifically, participants had more iconic gestures than noniconic gestures. This should be expected, right? If I were experiencing a TOT state, I sure wouldn’t just flail my arms with no meaning! I’d want to hit that pretend nail pretty hard to remember the word “hammer”. Well, yes, this was the case! 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, because we all know pretending to melt wax helps us find, oh what’s the word, yeah… vonk.

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, the experimenters analyzed the type of learning the two groups were engaging 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. Since it is a frequent characteristic of older people to complain about TOT states, it makes sense that they did what they could to avoid these states. Without memorizing the pseudo word, there was no word in their memories to have trouble accessing and thus, boom! No TOT state! 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’t articulate and how gesturing can actually enhance learning! Or check out my other two peer’s blog and blog on how exercise can help with memory while you age!

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.

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