why our words get stuck at the tip of the tongue

Let’s face it, our memories are not perfect.

Some studies indicate that our memories are actually not as consistent as we’d like to believe.

Moreover, with the past lockdowns from the pandemic, there’s a bit of research indicating that all this isolation has only worsened our memories, caused by bouts of depression and loneliness.

In addition, online search and digital devices are preventing us from relying on our brains more, causing us to forget things quickly.

Some of these memory lapses that we experience more regularly however are caused by cognitive biases and heuristics. And one common one to take note of that affects everyone is the tip of the tongue effect.

What is the Tip of the Tongue phenomenon?

Formally known as lethologica, the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon — or TOT for short — is a lapse in memory retrieval, where a person fails to recall a word, all the while feeling like they are so close to retrieving it.

From fatigue to caffeine intake, there are a lot of reasons why we might experience TOT states. The process of speaking, where our brains assign a word to a given abstract idea, makes sense of its meaning, then translate that into a vocal sound — all in a matter of a few milliseconds — is quite complex, to say the least. As such, an occurrence like this happening is to be expected. Our brains, after all, are not perfect.

When it happens

Everyone has experienced the tip of the tongue phenomenon at some point. This is especially the case the more languages you know. In fact, 90% of speakers of different languages reported experiencing this quite often.

Imagine the following common scenario: you’re in the middle of a conversation, elaborating on some story, and suddenly hit a wall in your thoughts. Whatever word you want to get out there is right at the edge of your mouth, so close and yet, you’re unable to get it out there.

No matter the effort, you think and rinse over what it is, yet remain stuck. The word is left lost at the tip of your tongue.

Why it happens

Speaking a language — even if it’s our mother tongue — may come naturally and unconsciously, but what goes on beneath the hood, in our brains, is quite a complex process of recollection, recognition, and relearning.

As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of factors influencing this lapse in memory retrieval.

  • Multiple languages — This can happen to anyone really, but naturally, the more languages a person knows, the more frequent they may experience the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. Studies have shown that when it comes to names, bilinguals may experience the same amount of TOTs as monolinguals, but with words, they experience this syndrome significantly more. This can be attributed to the sheer amount of additional vocabulary a multi-lingual holds in their brain, which also results in additional cognitive mechanisms having to be activated when switching languages as well.
  • Emotional states — We all know that when we are riled up emotionally, we can talk or behave irrationally. A study by Bennett L. Schwartz drives this point further, as it was reported that participants of a given test were more likely to experience TOTs for questions that triggered emotional arousal, compared to more neutral questions. Schwartz also discovered via neuroimaging techniques, that areas of the brain associated with emotion, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, were activated when experiencing TOTs.
growing old tip of the tongue
  • Growing oldThe older we get, the more our memory clutters. Therefore, its comes as no surprise that age will play a part in the frequency of TOTs. In one study, older adults reported having more TOT moments than younger ones. While both groups of adults generally activated the same parts of the brain during TOT states, the older a person was, the greater loss in gray matter within the left insula. Also, with some older individuals, there were some differences in the regions of the brain that activated compared to their younger counterparts.
  • Disorders — For people with more serious disorders such as anomic aphasia or dyslexia, experiencing TOTs can be more frequent. Anomic aphasia is a symptom that occurs in people who have Alzheimer’s disease or aphasia, and it is the inability to recall words or names. Dyslexia, on the other hand, is the inability to read and/or interpret words, letters, and symbols properly. A study has shown that dyslexic children had a tendency to experience TOT more frequently than their peers that read normally.

Some metacognitive theories suggest that the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon could be your brain’s way of trying to fix a retrieval issue. It might be a subtle hint that the word you think you know, isn’t properly embedded into your memory, thus giving you an opportunity to solidify it more clearly.

One study by Karin R. Humphreys suggests that the reoccurrence of TOT states is attributed to incorrectly mapping the specific keyword to a given sound, ineffectively cementing it into our implicit memory.

How we can prevent it

Luckily for us, this can all be changed.

The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is not permanent. With just the right help and assistance, you can correct this retrieval error. When experiencing TOT states, try to get another person around to guide you in recalling the word, ensuring you resolve that TOT so you don’t re-experience it later on.

Make sure to repeat the word to yourself regularly, creating a procedural memory — solidifying it into your unconscious, long-term memory.

Although we think speaking comes naturally, cognitive biases like the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon are subtle reminders that language learning, in general, is a dynamic process that involves continual, conscious practice.

There are plenty of cognitive biases that exist and with over 20+ memory-associated ones, the first step to fixing these things is to be aware of them. Learn to be conscious of the processes you take to remember something and fine-tune the steps you take to input something into memory.