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Apr 12 / Donald Gonzalez

Tip of the tongue

The tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon is an example of knowing something that cannot right away be recalled. TOT is a near-universal experience with memory recollection involving complexity retrieving a famous word or familiar name. When experiencing TOT, people feel that the blocked word is on the verge of being recovered. Despite failure in finding the word, people have the feeling that the blocked word is symbolically “on the tip of the tongue.” Inaccessibility and the sense of imminence are two key features of an operational definition of TOTs (A.S. Brown, 1991). The experience of TOT appeared in non-academic literature as early as 1885. Anton Chekhov’s short story “A Horsey Name” is about the main character’s tip-of-the-tongue knowledge involving a surname. In 1890, pioneering psychologist William James discussed the phenomenon in his text The Principles of Psychology. James described the TOT state as “a gap that is intensely active”.

In 1966, Harvard psychologists Roger Brown and David McNeill reported the first experiential investigation of the tip-of-the-tongue state. They recounted, “he signs of it were unmistakable” and “he would appear to be in mild torment, something like on the brink of a sneeze, and if he found the word his relief was considerable.” They also found that TOT is a fairly worldwide phenomenon; TOTs occur about once a week and increase as you age, and they’re often caused by proper names. Further, people experiencing TOT are often able to access the first letter of the “target word” fairly precisely and they also bring up words related to the “target word.” Finally, R. Brown and McNeill have some good news: target words are retrieved during the experience of a TOT phenomenon about half of the time. Although it is not explicitly called by this name it is interesting to note that TOT is briefly considered by Aristotle in “On Memory and Reminiscence”, in his discussion on recall.


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