Why words get stuck on the tip of your tongue, and how to stop it recurring

Someone in a tip-of-the-tongue state will invariably writhe about as if in some physical discomfort. “I know it, I know it, hang on …” they will say. Finger snapping and glances to the ceiling might follow, before a final grunt of frustrated submission – “No, it’s gone”.

Psychologists studying this phenomenon say it occurs when there is a disconnect between a word’s concept and it’s lexical representation. A successful utterance requires these two steps are bridged, but in the tip-of-the-tongue state, only the concept is activated (and possibly a letter or two) while the complete translation into letters and sounds fails. What’s more, new research shows the very act of being in this state makes it more likely that it will recur.

Maria D’Angelo and Karin Humphreys provoked their participants into experiencing tip-of-the-tongue states by presenting them with the definitions for rare words (e.g. “What do you call an instrument for performing calculations by sliding beads along rods or grooves?”). Sometimes the students knew the word straight-off, other times they said they simply didn’t know, but occasionally – and these were the important trials – they said they definitely knew the word, but couldn’t quite spit it out.

The researchers quickly (after 10 or 30 seconds) put the students out of this last, uncomfortable tip-of-the-tongue state by telling them the answer. However, a key finding was that being in a tip-of-the-tongue state for a particular word on one occasion increased the likelihood of being in that state again for the same word on later re-testing, whether that second test came 5 mins, 48 hours or one week later (thus replicating and extending previous research by the same lab). This recurrence is despite the fact of having been told the word after the initial tip-of-the-tongue state.

This suggests the state involves an unhelpful learning process. Imagine a hiker who is lost en route to his destination – this is your brain trying to find the path between word concept and letters and sounds. The findings suggest that walking the wrong route once actually makes it more likely you’ll get lost again as you unintentionally come to learn the wrong way to your destination.

Consistent with this account, spending more time deliberately but unsuccessfully attempting to resolve a tip-of-the-tongue state made it even more likely that it will recur (but note, contrary to the researchers’ prior work, this time this effect was only found when participants put a lot of unsuccessful effort into resolving the tip-of-the-tongue state).

In real life, this means that if you’re hopping about in a frustrated tip-of-the-tongue state and I tell you the word you’re hunting for, I won’t have done you any favours – next time you need that word, you’re likely to get stuck again. The researchers believe this is because although I’ve told you the word, you haven’t arrived at it through your own word-searching processes. To follow the hiking analogy, it’s a bit like I’ve picked you up by car and fast-tracked you to your destination – by doing so, I will have done nothing to teach you the correct route.

So, is there anything you can do to help a person in a tip-of-the-tongue state? A clue comes from the fact that when the students in these experiments spontaneously resolved a tip-of-the-tongue state (i.e. they finally managed to find the word before the researchers told it to them), they were subsequently far less likely to get stuck again. Such spontaneous resolutions suggest that the word-search process has managed to resolve itself and when this happens, the correct concept-word connection is usually remembered. This is like the lost hiker managing to find his own way to the destination and remembering the route for future use.

The way to help someone in a tip-of-the-tongue state, then, is to nudge them towards a spontaneous resolution. When the researchers helped their student participants resolve a tip-of-tongue state by giving them the first few letters of the solution, this prevented the state from recurring on later testing. Point the hiker in the right direction and if he finds the right way himself, he will remember the correct route in future. This nicely complements an established phenomenon from research on word learning known as the generation effect: that is, generating words from clues (such as a word stem) leads to better memory for those words than being told them whole.

“These findings may have potential applications for both educational, and therapeutic settings, in which a student or a patient with neurological damage is trying to retrieve a difficult item,” the researchers concluded.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

D’Angelo, M., & Humphreys, K. (2015). Tip-of-the-tongue states reoccur because of implicit learning, but resolving them helps Cognition, 142, 166-190 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.05.019

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!