“DAVID BOWIE!” I shouted triumphantly in my apartment, throwing my fist into the air.
It had begun with a feeling we all know too well:
“What is that guy’s name?” I first wondered aloud before weakly mumbling a few lines of the hit 80’s song “Let’s Dance” as if it would help me remember. It did not.
Only after about thirty painfully long seconds and a series of wordless noises of frustration did his name finally tumble from the tip of my tongue in a victorious burst, inevitably leaving my next-door-neighbor wondering, “What exactly is going on in Apartment 4?”
There is something immensely satisfying about finally overcoming this “tip-of-the-tongue” (TOT) experience. In the past century, the phenomenon of TOT has come to be known as a brief but specific state of consciousness, which begs the question, what is going on in the brain during all of this?
Imaging studies show, with some consistency, increased activity during the TOT state in four regions: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the right inferior parietal cortex (RIFC), the anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC), and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The latter two regions have been implicated in post-retrieval operations; presumably they are engaged during TOT because of our ability to retrieve partial information about the word, like the first letter or the number of syllables, which may help us later recall the entire word. The ACC is postulated to assist during TOT through conflict monitoring, perhaps by helping us eliminate the words that are similar or related but are not the target word. The PFC has been implicated in conscious thought and problem-solving—it is unsurprising that this region is activated more during TOT, as we usually generate language with relative and semi-subconscious ease.
While I was in college, I sometimes participated in psychology studies to make a little extra money. In one particular study, I was taken to a small, windowless room and presented with a large binder. Contained within were perhaps a hundred pictures of random objects, and it was my task to flip through and name them while a research assistant took notes on various aspects of my performance.
I, like most people, completed the task with only minor problems. One problem occurred when I erroneously said that a picture of a bird was a duck. The more significant experience came towards the end of the study.
“Oh, wait, this is,” I faltered, snapping my fingers. “Paintbrush, paint, painters…an easel!” I exclaimed, beaming.
“So would you describe that as, like, a tip-of-the-tongue feeling?” she asked. I could tell she was getting excited.
TOT, I have noticed, brings out the worst in people. Have you ever had to stop in mid-sentence to think of a word that just won’t come out?
“What is the word…?” you murmur, able to feel but not quite articulate it. As the moments go on and you still cannot remember, you become more aggressive.
“What is that word?!” you demand, suddenly forcing the other person to participate. Being unable to read minds, they are exceptionally unhelpful.
Don’t feel badly; we have all experienced the Hulk-like transformation and savagery that TOT sometimes inspires. We have all experienced it because, studies show, it is a universal phenomenon. Furthermore, it tends to happen to us about once a week, increasing in frequency with age, and about half of the time it is resolved soon after it happens (the other half of the time being, of course, those moments just before falling asleep when you spontaneously remember the word).
Though both informative and interesting, imaging studies and TOT studies in general have yet to offer insight into the reason for TOT. The lack of explanation as to why this experience happens in the first place may very well be because there is no explanation. Perhaps the brain, like every other part of the body, simply experiences the occasional hiccup. We’ve all had odd, but brief eye twitches, or a fleeting moment of uncharacteristic joint pain, just as we’ve all had TOT. Until we find an answer (if there is one to be found), just try not to take it out on your friends.
Brown, A.S. (1991). A review of the tip-of-the-tongue experience. Psychological Bulletin,109(2): 204-223.
Maril, A., Simons, J.S., Weaver, J.J., Schacter, D.L. (2005). Graded recall success: an event-related fMRI comparison of tip of the tongue and feeling of knowing. NeuroImage 24: 1130-1138.