What “Tip of the Tongue” Tells Us About How Memory Works

BrainShe’s your favorite actress. You’ve been following her career since she was in her early teens. You know her face with as much familiarity as family members. You can see the time she was being interviewed on the red carpet and gave her passing co-star a high five in your minds eye photographically.

But suddenly, when you’re talking with friends about movies at a bar or restaurant and you start to say something about her, you realize with something approaching horror that you can’t think of her name. It’s ridiculous — you know you know it, you just can’t find it in the wiring for some strange reason.

You’ve just suffered the disconcerting phenomenon of “lethologica” (from the Ancient Greek terms for “forgetfulness” and “relating to thought or reason”), more commonly called “tip of the tongue.” It’s characterized by the feelings that recall is imminent and frustration at it being out of reach, and it’s different from plain old forgetting because we can often recall features of the word or phrase we’re looking for like the letter it starts with, it’s rhythm or length or words that sound or mean something similar.

It feels for all the world like a tiny little software agent running around in the brain, searching through file drawers with great determination, foiled because of some past clerical error.

But what’s the brain actually doing, and what can tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon teach us about the way memory works?

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