By Joel Achenbach,
It was the Hoover Dam of mental blocks. Pundits referred to it as a “brain freeze” or a“gaffe.” In Internet parlance, it was an “epic FAIL.” But to neuroscientists, what happened to Texas Gov. Rick Perry Wednesday night looked like something very ordinary, exacerbated by stress: a “retrieval failure.”
It happens more often as we age. But the brain scientists say it shouldn’t be seen as evidence of an intellectual deficit or some medical problem. Instead, they say, retrieval failures offer a glimpse into how the brain does and doesn’t work, not just in the skulls of presidential candidates but for everyone else, too.
It’s impossible to know what exactly was happening inside Perry’s head at the Republican presidential debate, and the pundit class will continue to debate whether it was a neurological hiccup or a telling sign of a candidate who doesn’t know his own policies. What’s certain is that, at a crucial moment, on stage, live on national television, Perry could not remember the name of one of the federal agencies he would like to abolish.
Once he started to flounder, he probably found himself entangled with unhelpful thoughts, suggested David Diamond, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of South Florida. In a stressful moment like this, the mind turns to the consequences of the error, making an elegant recovery all the harder.
“Even though Rick Perry’s life was not being threatened, his brain was responding as if there was a lion in the audience about to pounce on him,” Diamond said. “He’s now got the media pouncing on him.”
The governor’s mental lapse did not occur in a vacuum. His previous debate performances have been widely panned, and he’s been sliding in the polls, fighting a perception that he’s not up to the job. He was speaking Wednesday night to an informed audience, one capable of understanding the nuances of policy. But he struggled with a talking point, opening himself to criticism that he doesn’t have the depth of knowledge expected of a presidential candidate.
It was unclear Thursday whether his candidacy could survive his blunder. But among brain scientists, at least, he’s getting a pass.
Jason Brandt, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said that he’s a die-hard Democrat but wouldn’t hold Perry’s flub against him:
“I think it’s unfortunate that it happened in a situation of such high visibility,” he said. “Whatever you want to call it, they happen, and happen at times of high anxiety in particular.”
Such mental blocks often involve the failure to retrieve a proper noun, the experts said. A proper noun is like a label: It represents a more complex concept. Patients with recurring, pathological problems retrieving a label are said to suffer from anomia. But it’s something that happens to everyone occasionally.
It happened to Perry in a particularly brutal fashion. For the better part of a minute during the GOP debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., Perry tried to come up with a word: “Energy.” It was the third word in a list of three federal agencies he says he’d close if elected president. But although he named Commerce and Education, he couldn’t quite snag that third word from wherever it was hiding in his brain.