BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Rick Perry's failure to retrieve the name of
one of the federal agencies he would abolish if elected president,
namely the Department of Energy, was most likely an example of a
very common phenomenon called "Tip of the Tongue" phenomenon or
"TOT," says a University at Buffalo psycholinguist.
"TOT occurs when we know the meaning of the word or words we
want to retrieve but are unable to access their sounds," says Gail
Mauner, PhD, associate professor in the UB Departments of
Psychology and Linguistics.
She says that often, when we are in a TOT state, we have partial
access to the form aspects of a word or phrase -- that is, we might
be able to say what the first letter is or how many syllables it
has but are not able to retrieve the entire word.
"It is important to remember that TOT states are typically not a
measure of intelligence. Nor are should they be taken as evidence
of a lack of knowledge," she says, noting that Rick Perry, as a
governor of Texas, is likely to be quite knowledgeable about the
Department of Energy.
"TOT states are more common for words that are infrequent --
like 'pulchritude' and 'protractor' -- and for proper names like
'Romaine Brooks' or 'Albert Brooks.' In fact," she says, "the
majority of naturally occurring TOT states are linked to proper
names and the likelihood of finding oneself in such a state
increases as we get older."
TOT occurs for words that are not produced very often and for
proper names because of how words are represented in the brain, she
"There is a lot of experimental evidence showing that when we
produce a word, we first retrieve (or activate) its meaning, and
then we retrieve or activate its sounds, then put them in the
appropriate order to produce the word. So it is not at all
surprising that one could know the meaning of what one wants
to say without being able to retrieve the sounds for the
word or words," she says.
When a word is not produced very frequently, Mauner says, the
connections between its meaning and its sounds may be weak. Because
the word is not highly practiced, these connections can be easily
interfered with by residual activation from sounds that have been
recently produced in other words.
"It takes a bit of time for the activation of a meaning or sound
to decay," Mauner says, "which is why prior production of words
with overlaps in speech sounds helps reduce the likelihood of TOT
states for low-frequency words.
"The activation of the sounds of the previously produced word
help in increasing the activation of the intended speech target,"
she says, "but activation of meanings that are similar to
the meaning of the intended word or phrase can also activate speech
sounds that might become more accessible than the speech sounds of
the word or phrase that one is trying to retrieve."
Mauner says this may have happened when Mitt Romney tried to
help Rick Perry by suggesting that what Perry was trying to
retrieve was the term "EPA" or "Environmental Protection Agency."
Activating the speech sounds for the EPA may have temporarily made
it more difficult for Perry to retrieve "Energy."
"Thus," she says, "Romney's intended helpfulness might have done
more harm than good by temporarily making more available other
speech sounds than the ones that Perry was trying to retrieve."
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.