A cure for the tip of the tongue phenomenon

by Zoe Egan

My dissertation focussed upon the tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon – a psycholinguistic research area. We all experience TOTs to varying degrees and the majority don’t really take any notice of them but for some people, they are really frustrating.

A TOT is a word that we are unable to retrieve even though we are 100% sure that we know what the word is. For example, you might be asked for the surname of the royal family. You know it. You 100% know it. The name may have popped into your head and then suddenly disappeared without a trace. You may know the initial letter or the number of syllables in the name but STILL cannot produce the word in full. This is a TOT experience.

The reason for my interest in TOT research is mainly due to my mum. In 2008, my mum endured a severe bicycle accident where she badly hit the right side of her head (no helmet L), broke several bones, and damaged a lot of skin tissue. Nasty. At the time, the doctor concluded that no brain damage had occurred. Yet, over the last four years my mum has noticed deterioration in her language capabilities: mainly a heightened frequency of TOT experiences. This was becoming a serious issue for my mum as she often felt nervous and stupid in conversation, as she was unable to retrieve basic lexicon. My dissertation therefore focussed on finding a “cure” for her.

To begin my project I read, and read…and read. There was a high volume of journals that focussed on what and how TOTs occurred, with many verging more on neuroscience than psycholinguistics. It soon became apparent that no research had formed and applied a preventative for lowering the frequency of TOTs. I was therefore about to conduct research that had never been done before. Cool. I pieced together various sources of research and combined my own knowledge of my mum’s case to form a TOT preventative.

The TOT preventative consisted of a diary study and job list that my mum completed at the beginning and end of each day for three months. The aim of this preventative was to de-clutter the brain to create space for other information to be stored and collected. This would lower the frequency of TOTs. By writing information down and crossing it off on paper, the brain was not constantly have to re-organise, re-fresh or remember useless information.

To enable analysis of the preventatives success, I tested my mum at the beginning, middle and end of the three-month period. The results showed that the preventative made a significant difference to TOTs of abstract and concrete nouns. There was a 17% decrease in TOT frequency from the first to the last test. By interviewing my mum before and after the three-month period it became clear that she had a more positive evaluation of TOTs. She knew what they were, the reasons why they might be happening, and methods that may help reduce the frequency of them.

I am so happy with how my linguistic project turned out. At the start you may feel like you have nothing to go on and all your readings might lead to dead-ends, but stick with it. Unknown to me at the start, I was researching an area which had not been researched before. This is a very short summary of my project but if you have found any of this interesting, or think that you might want to do something similar in your projects then you can read my full dissertation or contact me through Jeanette/Anna. Thanks for reading this post and enjoy your own research!

P.s. The surname of the royal family is Windsor 😉

(Zoe won the ‘Bristol Centre for Linguistics prize’ for this dissertation)


One comment

  1. Zoe, thanks for sharing this! I’ve gone through a similar experience as your mom and looking to improve my condition. I’d love to hear more about your experiment. I can also share info about methods that had helped me. Please email me at the attached address. Thank you! Mali

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