New research explains 'tip of the tongue' experiences

November 11, 2000

Remembering specific words depends on both contextual and phonological recall

WASHINGTON - That frustrating experience when the word you are looking for is right on the tip of your tongue but you just can't seem to get it out has been studied by scientists for decades. Explanations for the experience, labeled the "tip-of-the-tongue" or TOT state by researchers who study it, has, up until now, revolved around a blocking theory that suggested that words of similar meaning or sound "blocked" the path of the word you were looking for.

In new research, published in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, published by the American Psychological Association, researchers Lori E. James, Ph.D., and Deborah M. Burke, Ph.D., report new evidence that TOT experiences have to do with weak connections among word sounds represented in memory.

Dr. James, of the University of California at Los Angeles and Dr. Burke, of Pomona College, believe that language retrieval depends on memory of both a word's meaning and its sound. Burke, working earlier with colleague Don MacKay, Ph.D., developed the Transmission Deficit Model that states that language production depends on the strength of connections within a network that includes conceptual and phonological levels.

To test their theory that remembering sound is as important as meaning in being able to retrieve a word, James and Burke asked 114 questions to 108 research participants (72 participants in the first experiment and 36 participants in the second experiment). They were asked general-knowledge questions designed to evoke target words that are known to provoke a high rate of TOTs. For example, people were asked, "What word means to formally renounce a throne?" Target words--in this case, abdicate, included proper names and other seldom-used words.

For some of the trials, questions were preceded by a series of ten prime words which were pronounced, half of which shared at least one phonological feature of the target word. For example, when abdicate was the target word, abstract was used as one of the prime words. As expected, when participants pronounced words sharing phonology with the target word, they made more correct responses and had fewer TOT experiences than when they were primed with words that did not have a similar sound to the target word.

James' and Burke's research may also answer the question of why, after a person is not able to remember a particular word it suddenly comes to mind. "The results say something about this interesting feeling that we have when we're trying to resolve tip-of-the-tongue states, when it suddenly feels as though the word has just popped into mind. Our results indicate a possible way that those pop-ups happen--that we've likely recently encountered the phonology in the environment," states James.

The authors' hypothesis that people's ability to recall specific words improves when provided with a phonological related words proved correct for both older and younger study participants. But, the authors found that the TOT experiences are a function of weak connections among memory representations. "Connections weaken when words are not used regularly and/or because of aging," said Dr. Burke. "Processing the phonology of a TOT target strengthens this weak connection and improves memory recall with both young and old adults. But older adults still experienced more TOTs before and after phonological priming."

And how would people keep their memory recall process from getting rusty? Use it, the authors suggest. "People should keep using language, keep reading, keep doing crosswords. The more you use your language and encounter new words, the better your chances are going to be of maintaining those words, both in comprehension and in production, as you get older," states Dr. James.
Article: "Tip of the Tongue, Phonological Priming and Aging," Lori E. James, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles, and Deborah M. Burke, Ph.D., Pomona College; Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Vol. 26, No. 6.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at

Deborah Burke, Ph.D., can be reached at (909) 607-2440 or by email at and Lori E. James, Ph.D., (310) 825-8465 or by email at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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