Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 379-393

First online:

Sparkling at the end of the tongue: The etiology of tip-of-the-tongue phenomenology

  • Bennett L. SchwartzAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences, Florida International University Email author 


The tip-of-the-tongue experience (TOT) is the phenomenological experience that a currently inaccessible word is stored in memory and will be retrieved. TOTs appear to be a universal experience that occurs frequently in everyday life, making the TOT an ideal case study in human phenomenology. This paper considers TOTs in light of Tulving’s (1989) challenge to the doctrine of concordance, which is the assumption that behavior, cognition, and phenomenology are correlated, if not caused by identical processes. Psycholinguistic and memory theories, consistent with concordance, argue for direct access, or the view that TOTs and word retrieval are caused by the same retrieval processes. The metacognition view challenges concordance and views TOTs as an inference based on nontarget information that is accessible to rememberers. Current data, reviewed here, suggest that TOTs are caused via direct access and through inferential processes. Dissociations between TOTs and retrieval suggest that the causes of TOT phenomenology and the processes of retrieval are not identical.