The One Trick That Will Help You Figure Out That Word On The Tip Of Your Tongue

We’ve all been there: You’re in the middle of an awesome conversation, and then suddenly… you blank. You know somewhere deep in your brain exactly what you’re trying to say, but the words just aren’t there. It’s frustrating — and apparently it has a name: Tip of the tongue syndrome, or TOT. Good news, though: Science has figured out some tricks to combat tip of the tongue syndrome, and one of the best options just involves asking your conversational pal for a little nudge in the right direction.

Tip of the tongue syndrome has actually been studied quite extensively; indeed, its first known description as a psychological phenomenon occurred in 1890, in William James’ The Principles of Psychology. The following passage is from Chapter 9, “The Stream of Thought”:


The “activeness” of that gap is essential to understanding exactly what’s going on in your brain when you’re struggling to recall a specific word. Summarizing research conducted by Dr. Lise Abrams, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida and director of the Cognitive and Aging Laboratory, linguist Chi Luu recently wrote in JSTOR Daily, “Words are not atomic units as is sometimes assumed. Lexical retrieval is made up of layers accessed in sequence, so that in forming our thoughts, we choose the right semantics and encode the syntax of what we want to say before we even begin to say it.” However, when you’re in a TOT state, trying to use a word you don’t often use or haven’t used recently, that encoding can break down, resulting in you being unable to add the “final layer” of that lexical retrieval sequence — what’s known as the phonology of the word, the sounds that make up the word itself as it’s spoken.

What we’re not really sure about is what causes these breakdowns in encoding to happen in the first place. What we do know is that it’s complicated. It’s not just about target access; research from 2006 found that people primed with access to the targets they were meant to recall didn’t do any better than those who weren’t primed. Interestingly, though, what are called “blockers” — those incorrect words that pop into yourbrain when you’re trying to remember the correct one during a TOT episode — don’t actually prevent recall, either, even though it often seems like they do. Research published in 2007 by Nate Kornell and Janet Metcalfe found that blockers are more likely to be a side effect of TOT, rather than a cause of it. Meanwhile, other research has noted that TOT episodes occur more frequently with words that don’t have a lot of  “phonological neighbors” (other words that sound like it); additionally, there might be a correlation between caffeine intake and the occurrence of TOT states.


As Mental Floss reports, though, research has found a few ways to help us work through TOT states. As Dr. Lise Abrams points out, a study conducted by Deborah M. Burke and Lori E. James had participants attempt to resolve TOT states in two different ways: By reading a list of words out loud which, taken together, contained all of the syllables involved in the TOT word, and by reading a list of words out loud that weren’t phonologically related to the forgotten one. The participants were able to resolve more TOT states reading the list of words containing all the syllables of the forgotten words. Further research conducted by Abrams and two of her students delved deeper into Burke and James’ results, finding specifically that reading list sof words containing the first syllable of the forgotten word — but not the second or third syllables — helped resolve TOT states. Additionally, reading the words silently was just as effective as reading them out loud.

Since most of us don’t carry around lists of words that are phonologically related to words we tend to forget, though, scientists suggest one main trick for resolving TOT episodes on a day to day basis: Ask someone for help. Dr. Karin Humphreys, who works out of the Cognitive Science Laboratory of McMaster University, and Amy Beth Warriner, then an undergraduate, found in research published in 2008 that we have a tendency to make the same TOT mistakes over and over and over again —and that simply being told the word we’re forgetting doesn’t help; instead, itjust reinforces the error.  But, if someone suggests to us a phonological clue related to the word we’re looking for, and then we’re able to figure it out from there? That helps a lot — and it makes us less likely to have another TOT episodes around the same word later on.


Science of Us points out that the flaw with this method is that it requires whoever you’re talking with to know what word you’re wracking your brain for;  if they don’t know what you mean, either, then you’re probably out of luck. But the next time you’re having trouble recalling a word, it can’t hurt to try teaming up with a buddy. Two heads are better than one, right?