Home > Aging, Attention, Memory > Why can’t I remember the name of the actor in my favorite movie?…I know I know it…it’s on the: Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon

Why can’t I remember the name of the actor in my favorite movie?…I know I know it…it’s on the: Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon

mercercognitivepsychology.pbworks.com A accurate depiction of of TOT happening in our daily lives (minus buying tongues)

Remember that time when you were trying to recall the celebrity who plays the main character in your favorite movie? You knew that their name began with the letter L, that they were in another movie about dreams, and that they finally won an Oscar. You may even say, “it’s on the tip of my tongue”. But for some reason you just can’t recall their name (by the way it’s Leonardo Dicaprio). It is something we’ve all experienced, and it is called the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (TOT).

TOT is often defined as an experience when you know a word or idea but can’t recall it. However, often times you are able to recall words or ideas similar or relating to the word you can’t recall—referred to as the target word (Brown & McNeil, 1996). The first exploration into this phenomenon was during a study conducted by Roger Brown and David McNeil in 1966. In this study, Brown and McNeil read definitions of uncommon words aloud to participants, in order to initiate TOT moments. The participants would then state the target word if they knew it, state that they didn’t know the target word, or state that they knew the target word, but couldn’t recall it (a TOT moment). The results of this study provided the researchers with some general information about the phenomenon. They found that if complete recall of the target word did not occur, then accurate generic recall, like a part of the target word (such as the first letter, a syllable, or a prefix/suffix like “un-” or “-ness”) or something abstract about the target word (such as there being a stress on one of the syllables or a word that rhymes with it), would typically occur.

So now you may be wondering, why does this phenomenon happen in the first place? Well, in order to answer this question we can look back at what happened in the Brown & McNeil (1996) study discussed before. There, participants experienced TOT more often when a blocking word that was presented, a word that was meant to initiate TOT, was phonologically (referring to sound) related to the target word. For example, if the target word was braise, examples of block words would be bride or bulk due to their similarity in sound and syllables. However, participants did not experience TOT as often when the blocking word and the target word were similar semantically (similar word meanings). This being said, one theory for why TOT happens is referred to as the blocking theory, where a word sketch—which identifies important phonological

www.researchgate.net An example of a word sketch for the word frisbee

features, such as the number of syllables or the first letter (see photo)—is used to identify the target word. When TOT happens, this word-sketch is created but instead of retrieving (remembering) the target word a different word, the blocking word, is retrieved because of the phonological similarities (Jones & Langford, 1987; Meyer & Bock, 1992). For example, let’s go back to the original dilemma we were in, where the target word was Leonardo DiCaprio. In this case, you were able to remember that his name started with the letter L, so a word sketch that identified the first letter of his name was made. However, with this very general word sketch maybe names such as Liam, Logan, or Luke were retrieved instead (because of similar phonological features), blocking the retrieval of the name Leonardo.

The other theory behind TOT is called the incomplete activation theory. According to this theory, TOT occurs when non-target words are more activated/stimulated than the target word. This means that a group of phonologically related non-target words are first brought to our attention, and then some of the words are activated/stimulated more or less depending on how similar they are to the target word. In order for the target word to be retrieved from memory, it must be activated the most or at least more than all of the phonologically related words. However, TOT occurs when the target word is either not activated enough to be accessed from our memory or a different word is activated more than the target (Meyer & Bock, 1992). For instance, maybe the target word this time is meditation. Thus, related words like medication, concentration, mediation, and meditation (including the target word) are originally activated in the processes. If TOT occurred, this means that meditation wasn’t activated enough to be accessible from our memory, or maybe that the word mediation was activated the most instead, therefore it was recalled rather than meditation.

Now that we know why this happens, what factors influence how often we experience TOT? And why do some people experience it more than others? Well, a study conducted by Burke, MacKay,

www.troll.meme The real reason TOT happens, relating to the stimulation of connections between nodes 

Worthley, & Wade (1991) found that, in general, older adults reported TOT significantly more than young adults. The reason for this dives even deeper into the activation process discussed before. It relates to connections involved in activation, specifically between nodes (pathways that can be “turned on” or “off”) of vocabulary and phonology (relating to speech sounds). During activation, certain connections between nodes are stimulated, thus activating particular words. However, when we age, the connections between these nodes are weakened. As a result, the target word does not receive enough activation to be accessed from our memory and thus be remembered/retrieved (resulting in TOT).

Maybe now you’re wondering, is age the only thing that affects how often we experience TOT? No, actually there are many things that alter how many times we find ourselves in a TOT state, including the frequency (how often something occurs or appears in a given amount of time) and recency (how much time has elapsed since something occurred or appeared) of the target word, as well as whether we are bilingual or monolingual.

When a word isn’t frequently used or has not been used recently, the nodes are weakened and are thus unable to transmit enough stimulation to activate and retrieve the target word (Burke et al., 1991).

A study conducted by Gollan, Montoya, & Bonanni (2005) found that bilinguals experience more TOT than monolinguals when the target word is a non-proper name (such as an object name). However, when the target word was a proper name (such as a person’s name) bilinguals did not have an increased occurrence of TOT. The explanation for this? Since common nouns (non-proper) are specific to one language, bilinguals have a harder time retrieve the target word because they use each language less frequent than a monolingual uses one language (remember what we said about frequency before?) (Pyers et al., 2009). For example, if the target non-proper word was “aglet” (who knew the plastic end of a shoelace had a name?!) a person who speaks both English and Spanish would know the word as “aglet” and “herrete” vs. a monolingual English speaker who would just know it as “aglet”. Since the bilingual uses the English word and Spanish word interchangeably throughout their life, they are using each less frequently in general. While on the other hand, the monolingual only uses the English word throughout their life, meaning a greater general frequency. The bilingual will therefore experience TOT more often because the frequency in which they use these words is less than that of the monolingual. It is also likely that proper name representations share a common vocabulary node across the two languages, while non-proper name representations do not. For example, the word California is the same in both English and Spanish, whereas the word dog is not (dog in English and perro in Spanish). This being said, if the target word is a non-proper name, more than one node would be stimulated and would then activate multiple words, making it difficult to identify the actual target word (Gollan et al., 2005: Pyers et al. 2009). What’s interesting is that this can also happen to a bilingual of English and Sign Language. To learn more about it check this out!

So next time you experience a TOT moment, don’t beat yourself up over it or worry that you’re losing your memory. It’s completely normal and experienced by almost everyone. Instead, find a friend to help you out, try gesturing (seems like a weird association, but it actually works) or just forget about it (see for yourself here)! Having someone listen to you sort out your thoughts, and hopefully provide some useful hints, can help you find the target word you’ve been looking for. But don’t let your brain stress about it too much; rather it’s better to just move on, as found in the D’Angelo & Humphreys’s study discussed in the previous video link (2015).


Brown, R., & McNeill, D. (1966). The “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior5(4), 325-337.

Burke, D. M., MacKay, D. G., Worthley, J. S., & Wade, E. (1991). On the tip of the tongue: What causes word finding failures in young and older adults?. Journal of memory and language30(5), 542-579.

D’Angelo, M. C., & Humphreys, K. R. (2015). Tip-of-the-tongue states reoccur because of implicit learning, but resolving them helps. Cognition142, 166-190.

Gollan, T. H., Montoya, R. I., & Bonanni, M. P. (2005). Proper names get stuck on bilingual and monolingual speakers’ tip of the tongue equally often. Neuropsychology19(3), 278.

Jones, G. V., & Langford, S. (1987). Phonological blocking in the tip of the tongue state. Cognition26(2), 115-122.

Meyer, A. S., & Bock, K. (1992). The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon: Blocking or partial activation?. Memory & Cognition20(6), 715-726.

Pyers, J. E., Gollan, T. H., & Emmorey, K. (2009). Bimodal bilinguals reveal the source of tip-of-the-tongue states. Cognition112(2), 323–329.

  1. April 19th, 2017 at 14:53 | #1

    So relatable! I liked the picture of Dwight too! But seriously, I think the incomplete activation theory has a lot to do with what we are learning about in class right now. It makes me think about the DRM paradigm and also the spreading activation model in which things are densely interconnected but loosely structured. Since this model has continuous spreading, I wonder how this model would account for TOT.

  2. April 20th, 2017 at 19:34 | #2

    So relatable! I liked the picture of Dwight too! But seriously, I think the incomplete activation theory has a lot to do with what we are learning about in class right now. It makes me think about the DRM paradigm in which false verbal memories are produced due to increased activation and therefore increased accessibility to a word that was not actually studied. Also, most recently, the spreading activation model in which things are densely interconnected but loosely structured reminds me of the incomplete activation model. Since this model has continuous spreading, I wonder how this model would account for TOT. The assumptions underlying this model are activation decays overtime unless actively maintained (which can maybe account for TOT since most of us don’t walk around continuously rehearsing answers to questions people are going to ask us), activation decays as a function of intervening nodes (in TOT maybe it’s an obscure question you are trying to answer and therefore there aren’t that many nodes so activation is low), activation summates across nodes (it’s hard to hold onto relatively useless information when we have more important stuff to remember), and finally, activation along pathways is proportional to the number of pathways (I’m not quite sure how this assumption applies to TOT).
    When we spoke about the 7 Sins of Memory, we spoke about TOT as an example of blocking (the temporary inaccessibility of stored information) and I think it’s really impressive how common TOTs are for everyone!

  3. May 3rd, 2017 at 21:47 | #3

    @Mahal Alvarez-Backus

    Hi Mahal! I definitely agree with your connection of TOT to the spreading activation model. TOT can occur when the target word isn’t frequently or recently used which relates to the ideas of activation decaying overtime unless maintained, activation decaying as a function of intervening nodes, and activation summating across nodes. In terms of TOTs application to the assumption that activation along pathways is proportional to the number of pathways, if there is an increase in the amount of words closely related to the target word then there will also be more pathways/ nodes, thus each pathway would get less activation (as it is spread across the many pathways). However, as I mentioned in my post in order to be recalled one must reach a certain activation threshold. This being said, I would assume that due to the lower amount of activation across each node, the activation threshold to recall the target word would be somewhat lower.

  4. yipeilo
    May 9th, 2017 at 00:21 | #4

    Interesting post! I enjoyed learning about the incomplete activation theory, and the influential factors such as bilingualism and age. You mentioned that older adults become worse because of the weakened connections between semantic memories; think reminds me about one of the assumptions for spreading activation, that activation along any pathway is proportional to the number of pathways. Would it be possible that older adults are more likely to encounter TOT because of this fan effect? They have encountered more concepts and have more information stored in their long-term memory, so they have more words activated when they receive each stimulus; the larger number of pathways leads to a decreased activation along each of the pathway.

    This article also makes me think of the other post I read about Next-In-Line effect, which discusses the effect of anxiety on memory, and how anxiety influences attention while retrieving. Would emotion, especially negative ones, also plays a role in memory availability and accessibility while retrieving? (http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2017/04/17/what-was-that-i-cant-remember-what-you-said-i-was-next-in-line/)

  5. jbperlmu
    May 11th, 2017 at 02:20 | #5

    I really enjoyed reading this post! Having a tip of the tongue occurrence is always so frustrating for me, so it is great to hear more about what actually causes it. As I wrote about the Google Effect, which is our decrease in memory of things when we know we can access it from search engines, I wonder how the Google Effect relates to the Tip of the Tongue effect. I would imagine that TOT has increased since search engines, smartphones, Siri has become more widespread. Still, I think it would be very interesting to run a study comparing people who are prone to the Google Effect with those who experience lots of TOT.

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