The “Tip of the Tongue” Phenomenon: Explaining the Whatchamacallits and Thingamajigs

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a workshop on Blogging Science, in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Sally Ainsworth.


We’ve all been there, when trying to remember the name of that one actor from that one film or perhaps the lyrics to a song you swore you knew by heart. In many ways it’s worse than simply forgetting; it’s that tormenting feeling of knowing what you want to remember, but simultaneously not knowing. It’s the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon.

But what causes this all-too-common experience? Unfortunately, like many aspects of human memory, the tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon remains mysterious. There are many theories as to when and why TOT states occur, but no single prominent explanation. However, most theorists can agree on one thing: TOTs involve how we receive and perceive retrieval cues. For those unfamiliar, retrieval cues can include any associations we have surrounding a target word or concept, and these in turn are linked to form mental frameworks (or ‘schemata’) in our memory (DiMaggio, 1997). The sensation of TOT can often feel as if you are on the brink of solving a puzzle, only to be left struggling to put the final piece into place. As William James (1918) famously encapsulated the phenomenon:


A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit the mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps.” (p.252).


Just as with a jigsaw puzzle, in TOTs it is the pieces we already have that give us the shape of the ‘gap’. The schemata we have around the missing word tell us enough information about it to create the feeling of almost knowing it, but not quite. Schemata can include not only associations related to the meaning of the word you are trying to remember (semantic information), but also its phonological structure (i.e. how the word is sounded). This can explain why we can often accurately estimate the length, phonetic characteristics (such as the first letter or most prominent sound) and/or semantics of the missing word, yet still the final puzzle piece evades us. The ‘Transmission Deficit Model’ of TOT (Burke, MacKay, Worthley, & Wade, 1991) suggests that TOTs occur due to weakened links between the semantic and phonological types of schemata. Weakened neural connections can be caused by old age or infrequent use of the connection, which would explain why TOTs occur more often as you get older and tend to involve information you do not recall on a frequent basis.

However, this theory is just one of many and the mechanisms behind human memory are particularly difficult to draw conclusions about. This may be partly due to our tendency to see the human mind as an infallible computer. Theoretical models consistently use mechanical language such as ‘processing’ or ‘encoding’ when attempting to describe human memory. The tip of the tongue phenomenon stands as a testament against such an analogy, as part of what sets the human mind apart from a mere mass of cogs and wires is its unique ability to make complex, seemingly inexplicable mistakes; it is beautifully unpredictable. So, the next time you find yourself searching for that elusive final piece of the puzzle, only to be faced with the unhelpful recollection that what you are searching for is a ‘whatchamacallit’ or ‘thingamajig’, try to forgive your brain.

After all: to err is human, to forgive divine.


Links and References


Note: Image by jcomp'

Sally Ainsworth is a second-year student in the Psychology Bachelor’s programme and Honours College. She is mostly interested in Biopsychology and Behavioural Neuroscience, in both humans and animals. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, hiking and playing far too many video games.

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