Sometimes, in the middle of telling a story, making a point, or explaining a request, we suddenly get stuck on a word. It just won’t come, even though we have the strong feeling that it should be right there.
It’s not that we don’t have the vocabulary to describe what we want to say; we most definitely know the word. We just can’t get it out. What is happening when words fail us? Or maybe it is we who are failing the words?
Tip of the tongue
The psychological term for this experience is “tip of the tongue” state. It was first studied by experimental psychologists in the 1960s who showed that people in a tip of the tongue state were able to access information about letters, sounds, and meanings related to the word they were searching for even when they couldn’t come up with the word.
When you forget a word, it has not disappeared from memory; it is still there, but in the moment of speaking something is preventing it from being fully retrieved.
What would prevent the retrieval of a word? A word can be thought of as a collection of features: it has a meaning and associated meanings and images. It has a form, which includes its pronunciation, a written representation, and a syllable and stress pattern.
It also leaves traces in neural connections of how frequently or recently it has been used.
The retrieval of a word might be disrupted by a problem in activating one or just a few of those features. Stress, fatigue, and distraction can all lead to insufficient activation for retrieval.
More serious problems that damage or slow the necessary neural connections can also cause problems for word retrieval. The inability to find words can indicate brain injury or infection, strokes, and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
However, in those cases, word-forgetting will be only one of many other symptoms. On its own, occasionally forgetting a word is a completely normal part of life.
Tip of the tongue states are a common experience across languages. Even deaf users of sign languages experience “tip of the finger” states when they forget a sign. They are also common across the age range. However, they do become more frequent as we get older.
Forgetting a word can be frustrating, but most of the time the situation resolves itself quickly. The word comes back, and we continue. A study by Burke et al (1991) found that most tip of the tongue states cured themselves spontaneously without too much trouble.
In fact, younger people seemed to be more agitated by the state, trying multiple active strategies to force themselves to remember, while older people passively waited for the word to come back.
It’s almost as if the longer your lifetime experience with word-forgetting, the more you can relax and trust that the word will pop-up eventually.
But word-forgetting does cause older people a special kind of distress, because they worry more about what it means about the health of their memory.
While it is true that some memory functions decline with age, tip of the tongue states are independent of that decline.
In a study of age-related increases of tip-of-the-tongue states, Salthouse & Mandell (2013) found that “even though increased age is associated with lower levels of episodic memory and with more frequent TOTs [tip of the tongue states], which can be viewed as failures to access information from memory, the two phenomena seem to be largely independent of one another.”
In other words, a failure to remember a word need not be seen as a general memory problem. It is just a failure to remember a word.