tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon

Don’t you hate it when suddenly, mid-sentence, you’re not able to access a word from memory? It feels like the word is on the tip of your tongue, yet it’s just beyond reach. Noticing my friends and I experiencing this frustration more often lately, I wondered, what gives?

Not surprisingly, most commonly refer to these moments as “tip-of-the-tongue” (TOT) phenomenon or state. Encyclopedia.com describes TOT state as the experience of feeling confident that one knows an answer, yet cannot produce the word. William James is the first psychologist to describe this state back in 1890, minus the modern label.

Other technical terms used to describe what I’ll collectively refer to as TOT episodes are Lethologica and Lethonomia. Both are modern words derived from classic Greek. Letho meaning forgetfulness, logica meaning word, and nomia meaning name.

Should I Be Worried?

The good news is TOT moments are not necessarily a sign your memory is failing. Lethologica or Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon is discussed at VeryWellMind, providing the following information about TOT (sources cited in the article):

Tip-Of-The-Tongue Phenomenon Is Universal

People from all over the world report experiencing moments where certain words seem momentarily inaccessible.

These Moments Increase with Age

While young adults might experience tip-of-the-tongue moments once a week, older adults generally experience these incidences almost daily.

People Often Remember Partial Bits of Information

For example, they may remember the letter or the word they are searching for begins with or the number of syllables the word contains.

Proper Nouns Seem to Present the Most Difficulty

When it comes to which words seem to escape memory most, proper nouns take the top slot. This includes remembering a person’s name or the name of a specific place or thing.

What’s Causing the Glitch?

There are many theories regarding why TOT states occur. It is believed the left temporal and frontal areas of your brain are affected, temporarily unable to work together to retrieve words or names stored in your memory. If you’d like to further explore these theories, this Wikipedia link goes into great detail regarding the same.

All said, most agree that multitasking, fatigue, anxiety, and the natural aging process contribute to the occurrence of TOT states.

What’s the Best Way to Manage TOT Moments?

Personally, it’s hard for me to relax and stop searching for the elusive word during a TOT moment. Instead, I’m likely to continue trying to recall the word. If that doesn’t work, I’ll often pull out my phone and refer to Google to help solve the mystery. If all else fails, most of the time it comes to me soon after I stop thinking about it.

What’s the best approach to handle it? No consensus on the answer, but most agree it’s important to remain calm during a TOT moment. Try to avoid becoming anxious or triggering a full out panic response. This will only compound the problem.

Here are a few suggestions I found from various sources that may help you manage or resolve a TOT state.

Stop Thinking About It

Probably the best advice is to stop thinking about it! The word may pop up in a moment or two. If not, it’s likely to reveal itself, eventually.

Don’t Struggle to Find the Word

Repeatedly coming up with wrong answers may contribute to learning the mistake. Rather, look up the correct answer and repeat it a few times to help with encoding.

Your Brain Links Related Words Together

If you know the first letter of the word and talk about it or related facts, you may recall the word. Example: “You should watch this movie I saw! Dang, what was the name of it? I think the first word of the title starts with an F. You know, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman played a young Irish immigrant couple struggling to save enough money to head west for the Oklahoma land run? I know this.”

Tap into Your Brain’s Phonological Network

This network is a bunch of words stored close together because they are similar or sound alike. For example, if you’re trying to remember a certain baseball player’s name that is one syllable and starts with J, say names like Jim, Jack, John, and Josh out loud.

When Should I Seek Help?

The general advice is to contact your doctor should you experience TOT states more frequently than your norm or they become troublesome. Also, if you are experiencing adverse cognitive issues besides TOT episodes, it could be a sign of a more serious problem.

Here are a few examples of adverse cognitive issues.

  • inability to remember recent events
  • confusion
  • inability to concentrate
  • behavior changes
  • apathy
  • withdrawal
  • depression

What’s Worse Than a TOT Moment?

Well, lots of things! TOT moments are no doubt frustrating, but luckily, the phenomenon is universal and seems harmless. Except, perhaps, to your ego, which might get a little bruised!

Let’s Have a Conversation:       

Do you experience TOT moments? How often? Have they increased with age? Based on your experiences, what actions have helped you resolve TOT moments?