Here’s Why Words Get Stuck On The Tip Of Your Tongue

We’ve all been there. In the middle of a conversation, you’re explaining something and the word you’re looking for just isn’t there. You know what you’re trying to say, but for some reason the word is just stuck. There’s an official word for this phenomenon: lethologica, or a TOT state — as in tip of the tongue. And if you’re wondering why words get stuck on the tip of your tongue, science has sorted it out for you, as Next Avenue explains. While having another word to forget when trying to think of what to say may not ease the frustration, it’s nice to know that something so irritating is perfectly normal and you’re not alone in the experience. 

So why exactly does this happen? Well, it comes down to a mental disconnect between the word’s concept and it’s lexical representation, according to The British Psychological Society. When you know the word you’re thinking of, only the conceptual aspect of sharing it is activated. While you may remember a letter or two of the missing word, it simply isn’t translating into letters in sounds that you can speak out loud. 

And while it may be infuriating, it is far from uncommon. In fact, it is so common that most languages have a phrase for it. Koreans say a word is “sparkling at the end of my tongue,” for example, while Estonians describe the missing word as being “at the head of the tongue” (per Mental Floss). But what can you do about it?

How to beat a TOT state

Simply fixating on the word and trying to force your brain to spit it out may not have the desired effect. But all hope isn’t lost! A study published in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE found that clenching your fist can actually help to trigger the memory. When researchers made a fist while memorizing a list of words, and repeated the action when attempting to remember them; they scored better on the recall than those who did not clench.

“The findings suggest that some simple body movements, by temporarily changing the way the brain functions, can improve memory,” lead researcher Ruth Popper said in a statement (per Next Avenue). Hand clenching is believed to activate the regions of your brain involved in memory formation and can aid recall. Now, I’m not suggesting that you sit with your fist clenched and read the dictionary for hours in readiness for the next time a word is stuck on the tip of your tongue, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

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