The feeling you get when there's a word that you need to say, but you just can't come up with it. This is caused when you have a perfect grasp of the contextual information about the word, but the phonological information is missing. That is, you know exactly what you want to say, but your brain isn't cooperating in actually letting you figure out how to say it.

Previously this problem was thought to be a caused by "blocking", thinking of a word that was fairly close in sound, causing you to only be able to think about that word instead of the one you are actually looking for. A recent study (James and Burke, 2000) has found that this is not the case, and that TOT experiences are actually caused by weak links in the network that connects individual phonemes together into morphemes.

The experiment had two groups, an experimental and a control. Both groups were asked to read aloud a priming list of ten words, and then come up with the single word answer to a question. Each of the answers was a word that is known to commonly cause TOT experiences. The control group received ten words at random that had nothing to do with the answer. The experimental group received five random words, and five words that contained phonemes and phoneme pairs that were similar to the desired answer. Both groups were allowed to answer the desired word or "don't know" or "on the tip of my tongue", so a correspondence could be computed. Probability of finding the word by the experimental group was increased 25 to 50 percent, a statistically significant (drastic, even) jump.

The example I read had the question "What word means to formally renounce a throne?" The experimental priming list contained the words:
indigent
rejoicing
serious
tappet
abstract
velvet
truncate
tradition
publish
locate
Of course, the answer was the word "abdicate".

If you're worried about TOT experiences being a bad thing, or signifying the onset of senility, you shouldn't be. Many older adults find themselves having them more and more often, and stop interacting with others because they perceive it as a problem. Unfortunately, the only way to strengthen the networks is by talking with others and exercising them, so the social withdrawal is doubly bad. Remember that retrieval problems are perfectly natural, and that some time during the conversation a word will probably be said that will trigger memory of the "missing" word.

The "Tip of the Tongue" phenomenon is often referred to as a feature of Retrieval Failure as a theory of forgetting. A good example of this is if you were to see an old film on TV and recognize the lead actor, you are certain you know who he/she is but you just can't call their name to mind. This occurs when you have stored the information in your long-term memory but can't seem to access or find the correct route to it, as opposed to it being lost as in Decay Theory.

Brown (1991) reviewed 25 years of research into this "Tip of the Tongue" phenomenon and reported that people can generally recall the first letter of the target name or word between 50% and 70% of the time. They also seemed fairly accurate at identifying the number of syllables in the word.

Another point of interest regarding "Tip of the Tongue" phenomenon is the effect of 'interlopers'. These are words that sound similar to the word you are looking for but have no semantic link. An example of this is a man doing a crossword and coming across the clue "South American beaver-like rodent", stumped by this he asks his friend if he knows. His friend replies and says, "I think it sounds like 'coyote'", but will this help or hinder them in finding the correct word, 'coypu'? Perfect and Hanley (1992) investigated this but did not find a clear answer and suggest that it depends on factors such as the distinctiveness of the target word and its similarity to the interloper.

In layman’s terms, it's just where you're missing a link between where the information is stored (your long-term memory) and where it is needed (your short-term memory) at a specific moment. This is not to say that it is irreversible.

Reference sources: My knowledge and "Psychology for AS Level" by Mike Cardwell.

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