What causes words to get stuck on the tip of our tongue?

Ever had a word linger, infuriatingly, right on the tip of your tongue? Of course you have. We all have. The question is, what process happens in all of our brains that can block a word that's correct, while giving us a ton of options for words we know aren't correct?

The phenomenon of having a word available right on the tip of our tongue is miserable both for the person experiencing it and for the people all around them. The person experiencing it has the general shape of the answer. They know the phonics of it, or they know words similar to it, or they can describe what its function is in a larger system, but they can't quite get their head around the actual word. The people around the person have to sit there, their conversation on hold, while one scatterbrain says things like, "It sounds like 'agrarian,' or 'aggravation,'" or "it's like 'aggressive,' but it's a good thing and they had a lot of self-help classes that taught it in the '80s," or "it's like scissors but for the branches of a tree."

While it sounds like the person making this mental and verbal ramble might be using it to get closer to an answer, it's possible that they're actually blocking the real answer. The "tip of the tongue" phenomenon has been studied extensively. One theory is that of "blocking." Have you ever tried to explain a phenomenon two different ways? Or written a sentence and then had to re-write it with a different sequence of words? Once your brain has given what you consider a correct resolution to a problem, it can be harder to think of alternatives. The mind just keeps circling back to what it already knows is correct. The same thing happens when a word is "blocked;" the only difference is, we don't have the real correct answer. We just, on some level, think we do. If our brain gives us an answer that is good enough — it sounds like the correct word, or describes the word — it's hard to refocus the mind on anything else. The semi-correct answers block our access to the actual correct answer.

Top Image: José Serrano

[Via Psychonomic Bulletin and Review]