• Patricia Faust

The Tip of the Tongue Phenomenon

I originally published this article in January of 2015. I thought I would look at new research and update this a bit. Well not much has changed since the last time I ran this article. But it has been awhile and I thought it was important enough information that I should put it up again. Tip of the Tongue is so common and can really be aggravating when you experience it.

It happens to all of us as we get older. You are talking with someone and you can’t remember a name, word or place! One of my most intense experiences with tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) was a number of years ago. I was speaking in front of a large group of corporate employees and I forgot an important word midway through the presentation. I had given this presentation many times before, without losing any words. So, I am standing there blushing and I could feel the sweat running down my back. It was obvious to everyone that I was stumbling through the presentation because I was desperately searching for for the word in my brain while talking all the way around my memory lapse. Awkward!! Finally, a couple of hours later that word popped right into my head. That was my memorable initiation to the world of an aging brain!

What is TOT all about? It is described by many sources as the failure to retrieve a word from memory. The left temporal and frontal areas of your brain have a communication breakdown. They don’t work together to retrieve the words or names stored in long-term memory. You know the word you want; you can even remember the beginning letter; how many syllables the word has; or even how to stress the right part of the word. But no matter how hard you try – you can’t recall the word in that moment.

There have been some studies focusing on TOT. Tip-of-the-tongue increases with age and during periods of stress. The brain doesn’t like functioning when all the stress hormones are playing havoc with it. And it happens to most people at least once a week. (Good to know!) You have known this word for many years but can not recall it at the moment you need it. The research studies have not determined why this happens. Long-term memories are stored within the memory system with memories that are accessible and available. Sometimes memories are inaccessible on a temporary or permanent basis. If the strength of the memory is not strong enough it becomes more difficult to recall the word, name, etc. There is some indication that the brain stores words and definitions in a way similar to a dictionary. Sometimes the more memories you need to go through to find that word can result in TOT.

Now that you know this phenomenon can be attributed to an aging brain, you can relax when it happens to you. In fact, when you let your brain off the hook to remember that particular word, name, etc., your recall will happen much quicker. Jus because we all experience TOT doesn’t mean that you can’t do something about it. The best ways to have fewer TOT moments is to keep your brain agile. You can easily strengthen you brain by working puzzles, playing board games, reading or playing memory games.

Final words on TOT: stay calm when it happens (just don’t call it a ‘senior moment’ - (my personal view); laugh about it because you know everyone else experiences similar TOT moments; and keep you brain agile by challenging and stimulating it.

The word to remember with all of this is: RELAX.


Indiana University. Tip of the tongue. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from

Boberts-Grey, G. (May 20, 2013). How to beat ‘tip of the tongue’ syndrome. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from