When something is on 'the tip of my tongue', what's happening in my memory?

22nd July 2009

Asked by: Tom Green, by email

Neuroscientists studying brain activity have found that the filing system in our brains is more like a messy desk piled high with papers than an orderly filing cabinet. 'Tip-of-the-tongue' moments, or 'TOTs', occur when we know where the paper (or word) that we are looking for is, but can't find it right away. One clue to emerge from recent studies is to look up the word, rather than keep searching for it in our memories. If we keep searching, our brains remember the TOT state, rather than the word, and we will just have the same trouble next time we try to remember it. Unfortunately, the problem gets worse with age as the grey matter, containing our neural cells, degenerates and the white matter, that connects the grey matter, decreases, making it harder for the brain to search itself.