Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Brain Freeze

The Science of Rick Perry's Brain Freeze

Rick Perry's brain froze on national TV. He was trying to remember the third federal department he would cut and he completely failed. He knew the answer, struggled mightily to remember it, but nonetheless failed. We have all experienced similar moments, but his is a video sensation.

You have probably experienced a brain freeze sometime in the last several days. You tried to remember something - someone's name, a street, a particular word. But the name, the street, the word becomes elusive and refuses to come to mind. Sometimes another name or word come to mind instead, but you know that isn't what you were searching for.

I hate experiencing tip of the tongue brain freezes. It's frustrating to know that I know the answer, but be unable to pull it from my memory. I most frequently experience tip of the tongue states when I am trying to remember a student's name. I know the student and I know the name, but the name refuses to come to mind. The worst aspect of experiencing a tip of the tongue is that the name will suddenly pop into my head 10 minutes after I have finished talking with the student.

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Tip of the tongue experiences have been frequently studied by cognitive psychologists. Brown and McNeill (1966) developed a methodology to cause frequent brain freezes. They provided college students with definitions of infrequently used words and asked the students to generate the words. Sometimes the students easily recalled the words, sometimes they didn't know the words, and sometimes they knew they knew the word but couldn't remember the word. They experienced a tip of the tongue or brain freeze.

Rick Perry demonstrated a classic tip of the tongue during the recent republican presidential debate. Watching the video clip is alternatively funny and painful (click if you want to see Rick Perry's brain freeze). He tried to list the 3 departments he would cut if he were elected president. He gets the first two and then stumps himself. He can't remember the third. The moderator and other debaters try to help, but to no avail. He tentatively accepts one suggestion (cut the EPA), but clearly knows that isn't right. When finally directly confronted by the moderator, he admits that he can't remember and says "Oops." Forty-five seconds of suffering on national TV and an eternity of replays thanks to the internet.

Tip of the tongue states usually occur for knowledge that you don't use very often. But Rick Perry's brain freeze doesn't fit this pattern. Apparently, the list of 3 departments that he would cut is a regular feature of his campaign speeches. He probably planned in advance to use that argument in the debate. The forgotten department was the department of energy - an important department for a governor of Texas. Rick Perry should have known the information very well.

More likely is that Governor Perry experienced blocking. Possibly he had the names of so many other government agencies flowing through his mind that he experienced difficulty retrieving energy. In cases of blocking, a brief period of thinking about something else may be enough to remove the block. In essence, you remove the competitors from active thought and then the next attempt to retrieve the information works more effectively. This worked for Rick Perry. According to news reports, Perry later remembered the missing third department. Of course by that point in the debate, it was too late for Perry's damaged reputation.

So what should we make of Rick Perry's brain freeze? Some will see this as confirmation of an existing narrative concerning Rick Perry - that maybe he isn't too smart. Some will see this as a continuation of his failure in debates and in the national spotlight, a related but different narrative. Some might see this as confirming their view that all Texas politicians mangle both thought and speech. No matter what, the comedians will see this as an easy opportunity for a good joke. In some ways, how people see this says as much about their pre-existing beliefs as it does about Rick Perry.

I doubt the brain freeze is particularly revealing about Perry's cognitive abilities. Everyone experiences brain freezes sometimes. Tip of the tongues occur more frequently as we age. They may also happen more often when we are stressed since stress disrupts many cognitive activities. I certainly wouldn't judge Rick Perry or anyone else based on one nationally televised brain freeze. I will, however, happily use the video clip as a marvelous example of a brain freeze.

 

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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