Here’s What’s Actually Happening When You Have Trouble Remembering a Familiar Word—And What It Means About Your Brain Health

Photo: Getty Images/fizkes
Sometimes when I’m having a conversation, I’ll get to a particular word that I just can’t seem to remember. Maybe I’m telling someone about an incredible meal I had on vacation and can’t recall what a certain dish is called, or I’m trying to remember the name of a celebrity. I know the word, but it just won't come to mind. I might be able to think of the first letter or picture it in my head, but I’ll still be wringing my hands in frustration. And the harder I push myself to remember, the more the word escapes me.

Neuroscientists refer to this experience as the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. It happens “when you know you have a specific piece of information stored in your memory, but you can’t quite recall it at the moment,” says Hayley Nelson, PhD, psychology professor and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. The word is just beyond reach—it’s “on the tip of your tongue,” as the phrase goes.

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Why does this happen?

Some previous research suggests that this memory lapse occurs because of a “disconnection” between parts of the brain that are responsible for storing and retrieving memories, Dr. Nelson says. Deep inside the brain is a structure called the hippocampus, which sends messages to different regions that control everything from speech and movement to emotions and learning. The hippocampus plays a role in storing and retrieving memories along with the neocortex, which is the outer part of the brain that has those grooves and ridges.

“When you experience the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, it's usually because the retrieval process becomes momentarily blocked, possibly due to a weakened connection between these regions which impedes the smooth flow of information,” Dr. Nelson explains.

Other studies suggest that the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon simply has to do with the way our brains are wired. “We store in our brain our knowledge of words or phonological information (i.e., how to pronounce a word) separately from our understanding about what something means (i.e., semantic information),” says Todd Handy, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology at The University of British Columbia.

Because words and their meaning are stored in different areas, you might forget a word but recall its definition. For example, you might be talking about how people have a fear of spiders but temporarily forget the name of this phobia. Likewise, you might be able to picture someone and remember details of how you first met without remembering their name.

Is this something to worry about?

It can be frustrating when you can’t think of a word, but the tip-of-the-tongue is actually “a very normal human phenomenon,” Dr. Handy says. Dr. Nelson adds that “for most people in their 20s and 30s, occasional tip-of-the-tongue moments are completely normal and not something to worry about.”

Although these episodes are more common in older adults, they don't necessarily mean that someone is experiencing cognitive decline. However, one 2020 study on the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon among older adults found those with memory complaints showed normal results on an objective memory test but experienced more frequent tip-of-the-tongue episodes during a celebrity-naming task compared to adults without memory issues. It’s possible—though by no means a sure thing—that having these episodes often could be an early sign of cognitive impairment.

“If you notice a significant increase in memory lapses or other cognitive difficulties, it’s advisable to consult a healthcare professional for a thorough assessment,” says Dr. Nelson. Dr. Handy adds that these episode would only be a red flag if they were part of a broader pattern of things that don’t feel right. If you’re worried about memory loss, it’s a good idea to speak to your primary care physician.

Are there situations where tip-of-the-tongue moments are more common?

Some weeks it might feel like you’re constantly pausing while talking, trying to recall a word. “Factors like fatigue, stress, and not getting enough sleep can contribute to the occurrence of this phenomenon,” Dr. Nelson says. When people are sleep-deprived, for example, they’re more likely to experience memory difficulties, leading to more tip-of-the-tongue moments, she adds.

Another situation where memory issues tend to manifest themselves is when you’re put on the spot to remember something, Dr. Handy explains. “If you’re trying to impress people or you’re nervous because you’re at a job interview or you’re chatting with someone whose opinion really matters to you, personally or professionally, you might be more inclined to have those challenges,” he says.

Maybe you forget your partner’s hometown while meeting their family or can’t remember your company’s insurance provider while talking to your boss. This is because stress and anxiety tend to interfere with thinking and reasoning. You’re more likely to stumble on a word or forget something if you feel like someone is judging or evaluating you.

What can you do to improve your recall?

Because the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is usually temporary, there can be a cognitive gain to try and push yourself to remember a word instead of giving up on it, Dr. Handy says. “It’s sort of like pushing through a hard workout. The more you use your brain, the better off it's going to be,” he says.

If you’re desperate for a hint, asking a friend or looking up related information online might help you recall the word. “By searching for related cues, you can activate the neural pathways associated with that particular memory, making it more likely to come to mind later,” Dr. Nelson says. Even so, she says it’s worth trying to remember things on your own rather than relying too much on Google.

Both experts agree that the best way to boost your memory is by getting enough sleep, engaging in regular physical activity, and eating a nutritious diet. A 2022 review in Communications Medicine found that regular aerobic exercise improves memory and cognitive function in older adults without memory issues. “The more you work out, the more you might be incentivized to eat well and the more it’ll help your sleep, and so they’re all interrelated,” Dr. Handy explains. Also related (and crucial to having good memory): reducing stress.

To keep our recall sharp as we get older, we need to keep using our brains. “A lot of cognitive decline in older age is exacerbated by becoming less cognitively engaged with the world,” Dr. Handy says. Maintaining good social relationships and doing activities like puzzles and games provide mental stimulation and help keep your memory sharp. Wordle, anyone?

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