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VIDEO: Watch Rick Perry’s Embarrassing Brain Freeze


Sometimes even a healthy brain doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

Nobody may know that better than Rick Perry, the Texas governor, who suffered an embarrassing memory lapse during the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday. Mr. Perry stops midsentence as he struggles to remember the name of the Department of Energy, one of three federal agencies he has often said should be eliminated. A pained look crosses his face. He stammers. He starts over. He changes the subject. But the words don’t come.

How the gaffe will affect Mr. Perry’s political aspirations isn’t known. But among brain researchers, the moment is a fascinating display of a common human experience: the brain freeze.

“There are a lot of potential explanations for why it happened,” said Daniel Weissman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist who studies attention. “A lot of things are going on when we try to recall memories, and problems at any stage could lead to failure.’’

Brain researchers note that countless memory lapses like these happen to the rest of us every day, whether it’s walking into a room and forgetting why you are there or being unable to recall a name that’s on the tip of your tongue.

Some memories, like the name of the first president or a child’s birthday, are so strong that recalling them is effortless. But when the information is relatively new or used less often, we must rely on the brain’s ability to strategically search our memory for the hard-to-retrieve information. During this process, we engage the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which interacts with the medial temporal lobe, the part of the brain that forms and retrieves memories of facts and events.

When all goes well, the medial temporal lobe acts like a library’s card catalog system, pointing to the locations in the brain where different parts of the memory are stored and allowing the memory to be recalled. But in Mr. Perry’s case, it appears that something went wrong, and the search turned up the wrong card or looked in the wrong place or was interrupted.

The culprit could have been distraction, experts say. Just before the gaffe, Mr. Perry looked directly at his opponent Ron Paul, which suggests the glance may have disrupted his train of thought. Or it’s possible that Mr. Perry’s mind may have started moving ahead to his next point too quickly, leaving him muddled in the moment. Stress also can impair the function of the hippocampus, which is also involved in memory retrieval.

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