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Tip-of-the-… wait what’s that word again?

You are at a coffee shop with your friend telling them a story about something funny that happened in class last week, you remember all the details perfectly but when you get to the name of a student in the class you get stuck! You know that you know their name, the professor calls on them all of the time, but yet you just can’t remember. In situations such as these, some might say “It’s on the tip-of-my-tongue!”


There’s no predicting when a TOT state will occur! sites.psu.edu

This feeling of confidence that you know the word and feeling as though the word is just within reach is an example of the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (TOT). As most people have experienced, TOT states occur often, and there is no predicting when they will happen (Kikyo & Ohki, 2001). Although everyone experiences this, as is true with most things in life, TOT states become more prevalent with age. It’s expected that younger adults experience these states approximately once a week, but older adults often experience TOT states once a day (Radel & Fournier, 2017). Because we have all found ourselves in this state of frustration, lets explore why and when these states occur, and what we can do about it.

Why does this happen in the first place? To answer this question, we have to look at how our brain processes words, a process that involves pattern recognition. In spoken language words are composed of building blocks called features. These include morphemes, the smallest units of words that have meaning, which can then be broken down further into the specific sounds that make up a language, phonemes. These are the phonological features of a language (McBride & Cutting, 2016). Each of these features has to be activated by our brains to allow us to piece together a word. A TOT state is said to occur when you know some elements of the word, but you cannot retrieve the whole word (Radel & Fournier, 2017). This activation causes our brains to recognize parts of the word, resulting in the feeling that we are able to identify the word.

You may be wondering why this happens to you even if you think that you have a great memory. As Daniel Schacter explained, you can experience memory failures even if you have a normal memory. Schacter identified several memory errors that can occur to everyone. He named these the “7 sins of memory.” Among these “sins” is blocking which is a failure in accessibility of information (McBride & Cutting, 2016). If something stored in memory is accessible it means that you can actually retrieve it from memory. TOT states are an example of blocking, where the word you’re looking for is available in long term memory, explaining why you are confident that you know the word, but it is not accessible for some reason. Memory processes are very complex, and have many influencing factors therefore, there are many circumstances that may cause the word you are searching for to become inaccessible.

One of these factors include attention. A key characteristic of attention is that although everything requires attention, our attentional resources are limited. Retrieving information from memory also requires attention. As one study observing the effects of external stimuli on the TOT state suggests, if we are awake we are always processing information, and we are always focusing our attention on at least one of these sources of information (Radel & Fournier, 2017). Put more simply, we are always processing the information in the world around us, and this processing requires attention. The more attention that we are putting into other things, the less attentional resources we have available to put towards retrieving words when in a TOT state.

This lack of attention and difficulty retrieving a desired word, even though it is on the tip-of-your-tongue, also has to do with the type of processes involved retrieval. There are two types of processes that we engage in, automatic and controlled processes. Automatic processes are quick and easy, and don’t require a lot of cognitive resources, like remembering that 2+2=4. Controlled processes are slow and effortful, and therefore require a lot of attentional resources (McBride & Cutting, 2016). As was suggested in the study referenced above, when in a TOT state people often engage in a conscious mental search in the initial phase of the TOT. This search is a controlled attentional process (Radel & Fournier, 2017). Therefore, when your attentional resources are low, like after a long day of studying, when there is a lot going on in your environment, or perhaps when you are tired or stressed, you will have a harder time putting resources toward this controlled process to find the word that you are looking for. Similarly, retrieving a word that is on the tip-of-your-tongue is a process of recall (a.k.a retrieval) opposed to recognition. In a study looking at the parts of the brain involved in memory retrieval during a TOT state researchers suggested that compared to recognition tasks, TOT tasks required more effort and took longer to recall (Kikyo, Ohki, & Sekihara, 2001). This is consistent with the idea that recall tasks, which are involved in TOT, are more difficult than recognition tasks because they are controlled processes and recognition tasks are automatic processes making them much less effortful (McBride & Cutting, 2016).

Resolving a TOT state, and finding the correct word, can be very difficult as a result of this recall task. Lets look at the example from above where you can’t remember your classmate’s name. If someone asks you if her name is Sally you just have to decide yes or no. This is a recognition task. If you are in a TOT state and you know that the name you are looking for starts with an S, you have to search for names starting with S, a recall task, and then decide if you came up with the right name. This recall task is much more difficult than recognition tasks, because as you search other answers may come to mind like Sam, or Susie. You then have to determine whether or not these names are correct in addition to the mental search. If someone asks you if the students name is Sarah, you may easily be able to say “YES!” and resolve your TOT state. This is because it is often easy for people to recognize the word even if they cannot recall it. This is just another reason why recall becomes so difficult when words are on the tip-of-your-tongue, even though you feel confident that you know them.

Resolving a TOT state requires searching for the word, and deciding if you found the right word. https://goo.gl/images/pDQMUT

Why does this occur with some words and not others? Although many studies have found that this is most likely to occur with proper names, studies show that there are other factors influencing the formation of TOT states (Navarrete, Pastore, Valentini, Peressotti, 2015). As one study found, the Age of Acquisition (AoA) of a word plays a role in which words may cause a TOT state. AoA refers to the age at which a person learns a word. Researchers suggested that words that were acquired earlier in life were less likely to cause a TOT state. Although they suggest that AoA is the best predictor of the TOT state, they found that longer words, words that are used less frequently, and less familiar words were also more likely to cause a TOT state (Navarrete, Pastore, Valentini, Peressotti, 2015). These predictors could also be interpreted in terms of the processes discussed above. For instance, words that are used more frequently are very easy to recall because every time you recall and use the word you are creating a new memory trace. As Logan’s Instance Theory suggests with retrieval practice more memory traces are created, eventually allowing the retrieval process to become automatic (McBride & Cutting, 2016). In other words, the more that you use a word, the easier that it will be to remember in the future. Instead of being an effortful controlled process, it will be automatic and easy to retrieve, like the process of remembering how to ride a bike. Therefore, words that you use less are going to be harder to retrieve because they have fewer memory traces, and require controlled retrieval. These factors all make a TOT state more likely.

Chances are that if you have ever experienced a TOT state you have found yourself remembering the word hours or days later. We know that TOT is a result of failures in memory recall, which is not easily preventable, but researchers may have found some strategies to help you remember the word sooner. As previously mentioned, in a recent study, researchers examined the effects of external stimuli on the TOT state. They found that when they had participants close their eyes in either a silent or a noisy room, people were more likely to recall the word than when they had their eyes open and were exposed to noise. Therefore, limiting external stimulation, and possibly distractions, helped the participant in a TOT state (Radel & Fournier, 2017). This is consistent with the findings that attention is limited, and that we need ample attentional resources to resolve a TOT state.

Although you will face more of these frustrating instances as you get older, this may offer some relief. Based on these findings, TOT states could possibly be reduced by using as much of your vocabulary as you can as frequently as possible, and putting as many attentional resources as possible to retrieving the word. Limiting yourself from environmental distractions such as sound or visual stimuli could do this. Just remember, it happens to everyone!


Kikyo, H., Ohki, K., & Sekihara, K. (2001). Temporal characterization of memory retrieval processes: An fMRI study of the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon. European Journal Of Neuroscience14(5), 887-892. doi:10.1046/j.0953-816x.2001.01711

McBride, D.M., & Cutting, J.C. (2016). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications Inc.

Navarrete, E., Pastore, M., Valentini, R., & Peressotti, F. (2015). First learned words are not forgotten: Age-of-acquisition effects in the tip-of-the-tongue experience. Memory & Cognition43(7), 1085-1103. doi:10.3758/s13421-015-0525-3

Radel, R., & Fournier, M. (2017). The influence of external stimulation in missing knowledge retrieval. Memory25(9), 1217-1224. doi:10.1080/09658211.2017.1282519

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