The Tip-of-the-Tongue Experience

The tip-of-the-tongue experience occurs when you feel you have an answer on the tip of your tongue but you don't know what is. It is a good example of a felt sense.

The introspectionist William James (1893) wrote: "Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active...If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mold. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps." (p. 251)

In other words, even though a tip-of-the-tongue experience is not meaningful, each tip-of-the-tongue experience feels different. This difference in feeling occurs because each one contains different information, even though that information is inaccessible.

One of the focusers described in Gendlin's book used the tip-of-the-tongue experience to describe the feeling of a felt sense. "I waited for words [for the felt sense] and got 'out of place' and 'off,' but when I checked to see if they were right, they weren't -- not quite. I felt very close, I had that tip-of-the-tongue feeling, the feeling I get watching a quiz show, and I know the answer but I can't quite bring it up." (p. 18)

Research Findings

Modern day research investigates the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, although it is not easy. This research tradition was started by Brown and McNeil (1966). They gave definitions to their subjects and asked them to name the word. Whenever a subject had a tip-of-the-tongue experience, the subject answered questions about the word, such as “What is the first letter of the word?”

The theories of our culture -- the same theories that say focusing is crazy -- predict that if a subject does not know the word, the subject cannot answer questions about the word. In fact, the subjects correctly guessed the first letter of the word about 50% of the time, and they could do much better than chance at other information such as the number of syllables in the word.

So, the subjects knew information about the correct word, even though they could not report the correct word.

Explaining the Tip-of-the-Tongue Experience

When the tip-of-the-tongue experience occurs, an interloper can usually be identified (Woodworth, 1929). The interloper is similar the word the person is looking for. For example, subjects sometimes have a tip-of-the-tongue experience when asked to name the word for an instrument used in navigation. The correct answer is "sextant". The interloper is probably the word "secant", which sounds like "sextant" and also involves angles.

Interlopers can also be introduced by the experimenter. Jones (1989) asked subjects questions with a single word answer. The probability of a tip-of-the-tongue experience for the answer was increased by immediately following a question with a word that sounded like the correct answer.

My explanation of the tip-of-the-tongue experience is that it occurs when the correct answer and the interloper are combined. This forms one thought, from which neither word can be retrieved upon question. However, the information common to the two words can sometimes be retrieved. This information would enable the subject to guess the details of the correct answer more accurately than would be expected by chance.