‘Tip of the tongue’ (TOT) is a natural phenomenon in which people cannot retrieve a target word immediately, even though they feel confident that they know the target. This provides us an opportunity to understand the human memory system, because cognitive components of memory retrieval such as retrieval effort and successful retrieval are temporally dissociated from each other during the TOT states. The purpose of the present study was to reveal the neural correlates of the cognitive components of the retrieval process by separating cognitive phases of the TOT phenomenon using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging with multiple regression analysis. We demonstrated that the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and anterior cingulate cortex were activated at the time of successful retrieval, and the left DLPFC also showed activation when the subjects successfully retrieved the target names as compared to when they gave up. This result suggests that the left DLPFC is specific to the successful retrieval process. During the TOT state, a number of regions were activated, and this suggests that widely distributed brain regions are engaged when people make a hard effort to retrieve a proper name in the TOT state. Our new approach employing temporal resolution of the TOT phenomenon may contribute to the understanding of the mechanisms of the human memory system.