Until a recent GOP political debate, I had never heard the term "brain freeze," and I would almost bet that Governor Rick Perry of Texas hadn't heard it either (and surely hopes that he never has to hear it again). Seeing it further described as a "retrieval failure, memory lapse, or drawing a blank" helped to put the thing in perspective for me. People in my age group call such embarrassing episodes "senior moments."
Fortunately, most of us do not suffer mental blocks in such a public forum as a nationally televised debate with millions of people watching. In that situation, the embarrassment can be acute, which causes the brain to "freeze" even further (a "snowballing" effect, so to speak).
No matter how you feel about politics in general, or Rick Perry in particular, you had to be sorry for the poor guy as he struggled to remember the name of the third governmental agency that he would eliminate as President of the United States. The pain was evident on his face as he stopped, stammered, started over and still couldn't find the words, ending the awkward moment with an apologetic, "Oops."
Was it a defining moment in presidential politics? It may be too early to say, but his poll numbers have dropped significantly since that debate. There were also some unflattering things said afterward on talk shows and posted on the internet, deploring the possibility of "another tongue-tied Texan in the White House." (A reference to George W. Bush, who had his own problems with public speaking.)
"Brain freeze" does happen to the best of us and at the most embarrassing times. Even Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, had "lapses" and had to be prompted once (unfortunately on-camera, and audible to all) by his wife, Nancy, standing at his side and feeding him the answer to a reporter's question.
So what causes the brain to "freeze?" One expert put it this way (and I am paraphrasing here): When we draw up points that we want to make, the frontal lobe, the region of the brain housing our short-term memory, stores them for easy access and retrieval. But the frontal lobe is susceptible to outside influences such as stress, distractions, and the pressure of time, which can cause the working memory suddenly to go blank as the path to information retrieval is blocked.
Oddly enough, there is another sort of "brain freeze" which is more common. This kind comes from eating cold things, such as ice cream, and is often referred to as "ice cream headache." It happens when blood vessels in the roof of the mouth are dilated by coming in contact with very cold substances, and the trigemimal nerve conducts a signal to the brain, which is fooled into thinking the pain is coming from the forehead.
There is no evidence that Rick Perry had been eating ice cream, so we have to assume that his headache was the other kind.