Lethologica: what happens when a word is on the tip of the tongue

Reading time: 4 minutes

“Wait, I swear, I know this!” you say. “Give me a second, it’s on the tip of my tongue… Does it start with a K? Maybe a C?” You feel like you are just about to remember, but somehow the memory feels stuck in your mouth. This is the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, also known as lethologica. Why does it happen?

Lethologica is frustrating but useful

Studies found that the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is universal, and most languages use the same metaphor to describe a sensation on one’s tongue. 90% of speakers of different languages from all over the world report experiencing this phenomenon where memories seem to be momentarily inaccessible. It is also universal in terms of age: younger and older people alike occasionally suffer from lethologica. However, researchers found that bilingual people seem to experience more tip-of-the-tongue moments in their less dominant language.

According to psychologists Bennett Schwartz and Janet Metcalfe, lethologica may be seen as a metacognitive process, which signals a weak recall—in contrast to no recall at all. Sometimes, it’s evident you just don’t know the answer to a question. But when you feel like something is on the tip of your tongue, your mind is telling you: we should know this.

As such, lethologica may play an adaptive role in memory formation and learning process. If you find yourself repeatedly struggling to recall a specific word, it’s a sign the memory may not be properly stored. Some researchers think this struggle may be linked to implicit learning, which is when we learn information in incidental ways, without any conscious awareness that it has been learned. So what should you do when you experience lethologica?

How to manage the tip-of-the-tongue state

Many people tend to struggle through the tip-of-the-tongue state because they think it may help them better recall the memory in the future. However, that may not be the case.

Cognitive psychologist Karin Humphreys from McMaster University in Canada studies the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. She conducted a study where volunteers were shown questions and asked to state whether they knew the answer, didn’t know it, or had it on the tip of their tongue. People had either ten or thirty seconds to struggle for the word before being shown the answer. The test was repeated two days later.

The results were surprising: “The longer they stayed in that tip-of-the-tongue state on the first day, the more likely they were to get into a tip-of-the-tongue on that word the second day,” Dr Humphrey explains. “The extra time that people spend trying to dredge up the word is what the researchers describe as incorrect practice time. Instead of learning the correct word, people are learning the mistake itself,” she adds.

Incorrect practice time is a concept many sports coaches will be familiar with: when players practise their form incorrectly, they actually train themselves to make mistakes. Similarly, music teachers sometimes notice students who claim to practice diligently but paradoxically get worse over time. This is because the athletes or students keep on repeating the same mistakes instead of using deliberate practice. “The consensus seems to be that simply identifying the correct response is insufficient to overcome the erroneous behaviour, and instead, conscious assessment as to why the prior response was incorrect, along with immediate feedback, is thought to be critical,” writes Dr Humphrey.

Her study and recommendations have important applications for learning and education. Next time you experience a tip-of-the-tongue state, don’t struggle to retrieve the information from memory. Instead, just look up the correct answer. Then, repeat it a few times or write it down to help with encoding. This way, you will learn the correct word instead of wasting time and energy on incorrect practice.

And if you experience lethologica for a piece of information that does not really matter to you, just leave it be. Our memory is far from perfect, but most of its flaws are based on selecting what may be the most practical information.