Lethologica: The Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon

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Have you ever been asked a question that you know the answer to, but found yourself struggling to think of the correct word? "Oh, I know this," you might say. "I know that it starts with a B."

It's a sensation that we are all familiar with, and it turns out that this common state actually has a name. It is known as lethologica, or the tip of the tongue phenomenon. Psychologists define this phenomenon as a feeling that accompanies the temporary inability to retrieve information from memory.

Even though you know that you know the answer, the elusive information seems to be just outside of your mental reach. This feeling can be frustrating when you are experiencing it, but one of the upsides of lethologica is that it allows researchers to analyze different aspects of memory.

Some interesting things that researchers have discovered about lethologica include:

  • The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is universal. Surveys suggest that around 90 percent of speakers of different languages from all over the world report experiencing moments where memories seem momentarily inaccessible.
  • These moments occur quite often and this frequency increases with age. Young people typically have tip-of-the-tongue moments about once each week, while older adults find that they may occur as often as once each day.
  • People often remember partial bits of information. For example, they may remember the letter the word they are searching for begins with or the number of syllables the word contains.

    Why Do People Experience Tip-of-the-Tongue States?

    How do researchers explain lethologica? Language is an incredibly complex process. Most of the time, this process takes place so effortlessly that we barely give it a second thought. We think of something, the brain assigns words to represent these abstract ideas, and we speak what is on our minds.

    But because this process is so complex all kinds of things can go wrong, including tip of the tongue moments.

    When it happens, you might feel that the information is there just outside of your grasp. You know that you know the information, but it seems temporarily locked behind some sort of mental brick wall. When something finally does trigger the retrieval of the memory or when someone else offers up the missing information, the relief of those feelings of frustration is palpable.

    But why does it happen?

    Researchers believe that a number of factors may play a role, although the exact processes are not entirely clear. Tip-of-the-tongue events are more likely to happen when people are tired, for example, although other features of memory such as how well the information was encoded and the presence of any interfering memories can also have an influence.

    Metacognitive explanations for the phenomenon suggest that tip-of-the-tongue states serve as a sort of alarm. Like a warning signal in your car, they can alert you to a potential problem that needs to be addressed.

    According to such theories, tip-of-the-tongue moments are not in and of themselves a problem. Rather, they serve to alert you that there is something going on with the retrieval system and allow you to correct the issue.

    If you find yourself having this experience repeatedly before an important exam or presentation, you would then know that you might need to study the information more in order to better cement it in your memory.

    Can You Do Anything to Prevent Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon?

    Some researchers have found that tip-of-the-tongue states may play an adaptive role in the memory and learning process. Some studies have found that the more time people spend attending to a tip-of-the-tongue experience, the better their learning and memory of that material will be in the future. This suggests that these moments might result in stronger encoding of the memory, thus making retrieval easier in the future.

    However, other researchers have found that spending time trying to recall information that seems to be on the tip of your tongue may actually be problematic. While it may be tempting to spend some time struggling to find the answer, psychologists Karin Humphreys and Amy Beth Warriner suggest that the more time you spend trying to remember a word on the tip of your tongue, the more likely that you'll struggle with the word again in the future.

    "You're spinning your tires in the snow," Humphreys explained in an interview with ScienCentral News. "Your digging yourself in deeper."

    Humphreys own interest in the topic came from personal experience struggling to remember certain words that seemed to continually pose a challenge.

    "This can be incredibly frustrating—you know you know the word, but you just can't quite get it," she explained to McMaster Daily News. "And once you have it, it is such a relief that you can't imagine ever forgetting it again. But then you do. So we began thinking about the mechanisms that might underlie this phenomenon."

    What they realized was that once people enter a tip-of-the-tongue state once, it actually becomes more likely for that state to happen again the next time a person tried to remember that word. Rather than learning the correct word, it seems people actually learn to go into the incorrect state when they try to retrieve the word again.

    In the study, researchers showed 30 participant's questions that they knew, didn't know, or had the answers at the tip of their tongues. For those tip of the tongue answers, participants were then randomly assigned to groups that had either 10 or 30 seconds to come up with a response. The procedure was then repeated two days later.

    The longer participants spend in that tip-of-the-tongue state, the more likely they were to have the same experience the next time they encountered that word.  "The extra time that people spend trying to dredge up the word is what the researchers describe as "incorrect practice" time. Instead of learning the correct word, people are learning the mistake itself," suggests Humphreys.

    In a 2015 study published in the journal Cognition, D'Angelo and Humphreys found that this reoccurrence of the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is possibly a result of implicit learning, which involves the learning of complex information in incidental ways without any awareness that it has been learned.

    What the Research Means

    The study has important applications for students and educators. During your next study session, focus on looking up the correct answers rather than trying to recall the information. For teachers, the study indicates that it is more beneficial to provide students with the right answer rather than letting them struggle to recall it on their own.

    How can you prevent future problems following a tip-of-the-tongue event? Unpublished research by Warriner, an undergraduate student at McMaster University, suggests that the best way to break the cycle is to repeat the word to yourself, either silently or out loud.

    According to Humphreys, this step creates another procedural memory that helps minimize the negative effect of the prior incorrect practice.

    The good news is that while tip-of-the-tongue states are often learned and tend to reoccur, the incorrect learning can be correct either through resolving the problem spontaneously or by using cues to trigger the retrieval of the information. If you've ever had that elusive answer suddenly pop into your head, often when you were not even trying to think of it, then you have experienced the spontaneous resolution of lethologica.

    A Word From Verywell

    The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can be an annoyance, but it might be reassuring to know that it is not necessarily a sign that your memory is failing. Such experiences are common and are, in most cases, merely a source of frustration. Of course, they can sometimes be more serious if you experience such moments during an important exam or in the middle of a critical presentation.

    Research suggests that the roots of the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon may be multidimensional and linked to different causes. You might be more likely to experience lethologica when you're exhausted, or perhaps your memory of the information was simply weak at best. No matter what the cause, struggling to remember the elusive piece of information may actually make recall more difficult in the future. Instead of struggling to bring forth the memory, simply looking up the answer might actually be a more beneficial way of resolving your next tip-of-the-tongue experience.

    Sources:

    Christmas, J. What's that word? Researcher studies tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. McMaster Daily News; 2008.

    D'Angelo, MC & Humphreys, KR. Tip-of-the-tongue states reoccur because of implicit learning, but resolving them helps. Cognition. 2015;142:166-190. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2015.05.019.

    Schwartz, BL & Metcalfe, J. Tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) states: Retrieval, behavior, and experience. Memory & Cognition. 2011;39(5):737-749. doi:10.3758/s13421-010-0066-8.

    Warriner, A.B. & Humphreys, K.R. Learning to fail: Reoccurring tip-of-the-tongue states. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2008;61(4): 535-542.

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