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There is a very specific feeling of frustration that comes with trying to recall a word that you know is sitting in your brain somewhere but failing to drop into your mouth. We refer to it as having a word on the “tip of your tongue”. We might fall into this trap once a week or so in normal life (although it becomes more frequent with age), and around 50% of the time, we manage to get ourselves out of the mess within a minute. We often experience it when a friend asks a question with a familiar answer that we have not heard or used recently, or when we try to find a specific but uncommon word that describes a feeling we are trying to communicate.

Questions with uncommon single-word answers are particularly likely to elicit a tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon. Let’s see if any of these questions, which have previously been used to elicit TOT feelings in lab studies, do a good job of getting you into the dreaded TOT mental state (the answers will be at the end of the article):

  • What do you call a word or sentence that reads the same backward and forward such as, “Madam, I’m Adam”?

  • What is the name of the islands off the coast of Ecuador that Darwin visited to study unique species of animal life?

  • What is the order of lower mammals including kangaroos and opossums which carry their young in an abdominal pouch?

  • What is the word meaning favoritism in hiring based on family relationships?

  • What do you call a person who appeals to people’s prejudices, making false claims and promises in order to gain power?

  • What are people who make maps called?

What exactly is our brain up to when we experience a TOT feeling? Brain scans suggest that two key brain areas are particularly active: the anterior cingulate cortex and the right prefrontal cortex. Our anterior cingulate cortex is typically involved in detecting and monitoring mental conflicts. It is a core part of the inner battle between competing options when we encounter a problem. The right prefrontal cortex is involved in working through our memories as we retrieve them, especially when we are not particularly confident that they are correct. It underpins the sense of familiarity but lack of certainty about the solution to a problem when we desperately peruse the contents of our mind in search of the answer.

These brain functions are reminiscent of what happens when a word is on the tip of our tongue. In our mind, we work through multiple conflicting possibilities with similar sounds or meanings as we try to zero in on the target: “is it despotism? Neapolitan… nativism… NEPOTISM!”. There goes the answer to one of the TOT questions I listed above, if you didn’t already think of the word.

We are more likely to find ourselves in a TOT state with emotional words than neutral words. This suggests that emotions are a significant part of our memory recollection process, as we retrieve different clues to what the word may be. Perhaps the emotions themselves are a definitive signal that the word we seek is sitting in our mind somewhere. We know that we know the word, we just can’t quite bring it to the front of our mind. This relates to what scientists call “metacognition”: thinking about thinking.

The metacognitive account of TOT phenomena explains that when we fail to recall a word, we activate our metacognitive processes to estimate whether the word would come to mind if we just thought hard enough. In addition to retrieving any emotional clues, we hunt down related or half-baked bits of information that somehow connect to our target. For example, clues could include syntactic (sentence structure), semantic (meaning), or phonemic (sound) information. As we accumulate some clues, we may cross a threshold that initiates a TOT feeling and encourages us to keep searching rather than give up. Then, if we continue accumulating more clues, we may be lucky enough to cross another threshold that activates the complete target concept and allows us to spit out the word.

To prove that phonemic information is one of the major clues that we use in recalling words, researchers put participants in a TOT state and then tested how well they could eventually recall the correct word. They showed that a list of similar sounding words helped participants to retrieve the correct target word, rather than interfering with their thought process. TOT states make us extra curious to find out the answer to our problem. Reeling off words that sound like they connect to the camouflaged target may be one good way to pull the word out of the bushes.

When we are trying to carefully count objects, perhaps the number of people in a room, our more annoying friends might whisper distracting asynchronous numbers into our ear to force us into furiously starting again. But when it comes to TOT states, a list of similar words can be helpful. As we play detective and attempt to solve a “what is that word?” mystery, any related information that pops into our head becomes a clue. Our brain activity bounces around these clues in trying to resolve the conflict, and with enough information, it eventually settles upon the solution and gives us a feeling of relief that is difficult to rival.

Answers to the list of TOT questions at the top of the article

  • Palindrome

  • Galapagos

  • Marsupials

  • Nepotism

  • Demagogue

  • Cartographers