tip-of-the-tongue syndrome


‘Hey! Did you watch that movie? The one that has Emma Stone in it. It is a Superhero movie! What’s the name?’

‘Are you talking about Spiderman?’

‘Hell yeah! Spiderman.’

Often in a meeting or a conference or even while talking to friends, one might experience a sudden loss of words. Even after a long tiring effort to recall the known word, it seems to be only futile. One might say, ‘it’s just at the tip of my tongue…’ and rightly so, it is the TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE syndrome. TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE is a widely encountered psychological phenomenon where the individual fails to recall an already recognized word. Psychologists, linguists and cognitivists have often gone back to recognizing the reason behind the phenomenon that is so common in human beings.


TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE is a psychological phenomenon manifested in language, one where the person fails to recall something which he is already aware of. TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE is recognised often when a person uses a lot of fillers during speech or stops in the middle of speech, or even something like above. One identifies it as soon as one encounters it. But how is it that a known word gets lost? It involves processes that go on in the brain resulting in this phenomenon; but for understanding that we need to understand how information is stored in our memory.


Memory, as we know it, is a consequence of the process of encoding and storing information in the mind. The more the brain takes in information, the more the older information decays. But this is not the only reason for TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE. One might forget the word which was included in the long term memory very recently. Human beings have two kinds of memory, one, the long-term memory and the other is the short-term memory. Long-term memory is mostly used for mental processes involving recognition of items and not for recall of the same. This leads to TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE syndrome.

Apart from memory there are a few other things that influence the occurrence of this phenomenon. Imagine a time when something has been told to you and you couldn’t follow part of it. Now you have to use the word after two hours. It is often found that due to the lack of resources during decoding and storage of information, TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE occurs. Thus, information, if learned in isolation, often leads to TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE; and to avoid TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE, learning needs to be connected to related information as much as possible which makes it viable to recall at a later time.

Again, learning a name or a word involves the use of all the senses and more. Sight, sound, feelings, smell, associations of the speaker with the learner, so on and so forth creates an impact on how the word is stored in the memory. Often, some people remember exceptionally well when information is received through an auditory stimulus, some prefer visual, and some do better with experience. Such conditions are important factors for the retrieval of a word. Hence, the recall of words demands the learning of the information in relevant conditions.


The discussion on TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE above arouses a question: is the word suffering TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE completely lost? Experiments have been done on people to show that the word is not completely lost. When one tries to recall the name of the movie- Spiderman, what happens is that he remembers the fact that it is a superhero movie and Emma stone has been a part of it; but that is not all. One knows that the word begins with an ‘S’ and that the word has the name of an insect, yet the TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE effect persists. This is often termed as the bathtub effect. This effect reminds us of a person in the bathtub where one’s head (sometimes feet) is out of the water. The retrievable information about the word is similar to the bathtub phenomenon where the initial letters or final letters or initial content and final content is recalled but not the complete word.


It is very common among psychologists and people in general that TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE is common as we get older. However, people of any age are susceptible to the phenomenon. TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE is a challenge experienced by all age groups at all times. Though, a frustrating and a not-so-pleasant phenomenon, TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE is not a severe condition if experienced a few times by young people, however it might lead to a lot of memory related difficulty later in life.

How to beat TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE?

As you might have already noticed, in a TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE situation, people often come up with the initial and the final segments of the word. This might help in finding the word in the dictionary, but that is just a temporary solution. TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE can be minimised if not completely blocked. Memory as suggested by psychologists is a heavily built network of mental concepts and these mental concepts are often related. The more concepts used in learning a new word, the easier is its retrieval. So, to avoid TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE situation, one must try and learn a word with the help of related concepts and information. This would enable the easy access of the word through the network formed by the mental information structure. Often related words or concepts, similar sounding words, or words with the similar spellings help in the retrieval of the word lost in TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE. This influence is termed as priming. This is also based on the same fact that related information can aid in word retrieval.

The process as suggested above helps to block TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE from happening; however, even after doing so, one might suffer from the state of absolute loss of known words. This often is a result of anxiety, fear or speaking, being extremely shy, and many other reasons. Experiencing TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE is difficult and it turns out to be rather frustrating; however, being frustrated, in fact, makes it all the more difficult for the brain to look for the lost words. Once, the brain is occupied with the thought that it is unable to retrieve known words from the long-term memory; it suffers from extreme stress and being unable to return to its stable state, fails even further to recall the words. In such difficult situations, psychologists advise to keep calm and indulge in some activities. This takes the mind off of the subject allowing the brain to return to its stable state. TIP-OF-THE-TONGUE can also be minimized through extensive reading, discussions related to the content of the words and through dedicated practice of connecting dots in the mind.