Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
“Tip-of-the-tongue” (TOT) is the phenomenon associated with the inaccessibility of a known word from memory. It is universally experienced, increases in frequency with age, and is most common for proper nouns. It is a good model for the symptom of anomia experienced much more frequently by some aphasic patients following brain injury. Here, we induced the TOT state in older participants while they underwent brain scanning with magnetoencephalography to investigate the changes in oscillatory brain activity associated with failed retrieval of known words. Using confrontation naming of pictures of celebrities, we successfully induced the TOT state in 29% of trials and contrasted it with two other states: “Know” where the participants both correctly recognized the celebrity's face and retrieved their name and “Don't Know” when the participants did not recognize the celebrity. We wished to test Levelt's influential model of speech output by carrying out two analyses, one epoching the data to the point in time when the picture was displayed and the other looking back in time from when the participants first articulated their responses. Our main findings supported the components of Levelt's model, but not their serial activation over time as both semantic and motor areas were identified in both analyses. We also found enduring decreases in the alpha frequency band in the left ventral temporal region during the TOT state, suggesting ongoing semantic search. Finally, we identified reduced beta power in classical peri-sylvian language areas for the TOT condition, suggesting that brain regions that encode linguistic memories are also involved in their attempted retrieval.