The best way to remember a word that’s on the tip of your tongue

Tongue twisters.
Tongue twisters.
Image: Reuters/Tony O'Brien
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A few years ago when I was driving home from work, the song “Rock Me Amadeus” came on the radio. I smiled thinking back on my memories from the mid 1980s when that song was popular. I could easily recall how the singer looked dressed as Mozart in the song’s music video, and I remembered he was from Austria. But when I attempted to retrieve the singer’s name, nothing came to mind, despite feeling 100% certain that I knew it.

The frustrating experience of failing to retrieve a name you know is called a tip-of-the-tongue, and it feels like the linguistic version of being on the brink of a sneeze. They occur cross-culturally in speakers of various languages, ethnicities, and ages, and they occur for the names of people you hardly know, like the wig-wearing Austrian pop star, as well as for the names of people you know well, like family members.

The only way to relieve this uncomfortable feeling is to recall the answer you’re looking for—which, fortunately in this day and age, is a lot easier than in 1985. When I got home and googled the song title to find the singer’s name—Falco—the relief I felt was indescribable, much like the liberated feeling after a satisfying sneeze finally erupts.

Why do words get stuck on the tips of our tongues?

There is relatively little known about the neural basis of tip-of-the-tongue experiences. The few neuroimaging studies that have been done demonstrate the importance of a region important for phonological access (the left insula) as well as regions involved with attentional control, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the prefrontal cortex.

Behavioral research suggests that infrequently used words are particularly at risk. When words are not used that often, your brain’s access to the phonetic structure of them weakens. Without access to a word’s sounds, you cannot mentally retrieve the word.

To prevent tips-of-the-tongue from happening in the first place, research by Deborah Burke and colleagues suggests that the more you use words, the less susceptible they’ll be to word-finding problems. Interestingly, even using a word’s sounds in the context of other words can help: For example, saying the words “abbey” and “circus” regularly makes it less likely that you forget the word “abacus” anytime soon.

At the University of Florida, I have recently begun to study whether our emotions play a role in tips-of-the-tongue—and my preliminary findings, presented at the 57th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, suggest they do. Saying a bad word—like a swear word—out loud makes you less likely to have a tip-of-the-tongue moment for another word immediately after, relative to saying a neutral word. I interpret this finding as an example of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which suggests that there is a curvilinear relationship between arousal and performance: Some amount of arousal helps performance, while too much arousal hurts performance. My findings suggest that the arousal that accompanies saying taboo words falls within that optimal range needed to reduce word-finding problems.

While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that people increase their daily ration of swearing to reduce tips-of-the-tongue, these findings suggest that experiencing some amount of emotional arousal can be helpful for our memory retrieval—at least if experienced before a tip-of-the-tongue occurs.

How to remember a word that’s on the tip of your tongue

My research has shown that gaining access to a word’s initial syllable is the key to retrieving it. When you encounter the tip-of-the-tongue’s first syllable, even within another word, it helps you to recall the elusive word. So, when you’re grappling for a word, instead of searching for words with the same first letter, which is what people commonly try, generate words with the first letter plus another sound.

For example, if you can’t think of the word “rosary” but think the word you are thinking of starts with the letter r, generate words beginning with ra, re, ri, ro, and ru, in hopes of coming across the right syllable that will then trigger recall of “rosary.”

While these strategies may help, they unfortunately will not eliminate all tips-of-the-tongue from occurring, as there are still many unknown factors that play a role in memory retrieval. But on a positive note, once you’ve recovered from a particularly memorable tip-of-the-tongue experience, you’re much less likely to forget it again in the future.

Thanks, Falco.