Rick Perry brain freeze


It was embarrassing, even painful to watch the poor guy struggle with the third department he was going to close. This may be the first time in history when the neurobiology of memory- lapse sank the candidacy of a presidential candidate, in full display on national TV. So what happened there?

The Neurobiological aspect

Short- term memory is stored in the hippocampus, a sea horse-shaped organ deep inside the mid-brain. Why is it located in the “ancient” part
of the brain? Because it is essential for survival. How can any animal survive in a dog-eat-dog world without remembering that cheetahs have a distinct spot pattern? Or a mouse that doesn’t remember that pulling a certain lever will administer a jolting dose of electricity? Or a presidential candidate who can’t remember one of the 3 pillars of his plan to cut “Big Government” down to size? Forgetting any of those can be hazardous to your survival, physical or political.

When the information content of the working memory (or short-term memory) is important, we tend to repeat it. For instance, if it is important to remember the multiplication table, we repeat it either by design, trying to commit it to memory, or indirectly, by repetition at school, or on Sesame Street, or what have you. The act of repetition and attention t0 the subject matter thickens the connections between the neurons that store the memory, in our case the circuit of the neur0ns that store the multiplicaltion table, and thereby become durable or more long-term.

Most memories are more complex than a series of numbers. We store the memory of a face in a special area devoted to faces. If there is a sound component to the memory, that component is stored in the  auditory cortex. If, in addition to the theme of the Pink Panther, we remember the
picture of the Pink Panther that went with it, we store the latter in the visual cortex. And so on. The point is that memory is widely distributed in the brain, and to recreate a full and coherent informational content there needs to be a center that is in contact with all those disparate areas, and  brings them together. This center resides in the medial (inner) temporal lobe, which is sitting at both the sides of the brain, about where our ears are.

The temporal lobes are situated right behind the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive center of our cognitive activities. It will get the info from the temporal lobe and make a series of decisions whether it makes sense, whether it conforms with your previous experiences (could Gramma really fly?),whether to say out loud what you just remembered or suppress it (it may offend somebody, or it may doom your political career), etc.

Any number of things could go wrong along the way of memory retrieval, causing a brain freeze. You didn’t commit to memory that phone number, or the information is too new, and the inter-neuronal connections that stored it didn’t thicken enough to last long term. Or you haven’t used a certain word for a long time, so it can take a longer time to find its location in the brain, but eventually it will “surface” (unless you cheat and use Google). Or you were distracted when you were supposed to focus on the subject matter (Your professor was talking about the Byzantine Empire while you were fantasizing about her in a totally different context). Any one of those, and many other circumstances could account for Perry’s momentary forgetfulness.

The Political Aspect.

As I am writing this post I am looking through the office glass door watching the birds pecking at the seeds I had spread in the morning. Here is a whole flock of dark-eye Juncos, and the drab California Towhees, and a… what’s the name of this bird? I’ve seen it a million times, I have it on the tip of my tongue, it’s… it’s… Ha! A house sparrow of course! How could I forget this common bird? It happens. But to tell the truth, I have never given house sparrows any thought. Never contemplated their lifestyle, nor their place in the natural world. They were just there, gray, unadorned, never inviting any deep thought. Any wonder they are so forgettable?

Except that I wasn’t running for president of the Audubon Society, and whether I could instantaneously recall the house sparrow is of no consequence to anybody. But Rick Perry presumably put a lot of thought into cutting the Federal Government, and which departments should go first on the chopping block. This is a pretty momentous decision. What would replace the Education Department? How are we going to have
Texas kids compete on an equal footing with kids in Hong Kong or Singapore? If the subject of Evolution is omitted from our textbooks a lá Texas Board of  Education, are we going to have molecular biologists inventing new cancer therapies, or are we going to buy the drugs from Singapore, which designated biotechnology as a national priority? How are we going to compete in the world if the Department of Commerce is going to be abolished? Who will be our trade representative in negotiations with China? A Defense Department colonel?

Many things could have happened to freeze Perry’s brain. But none of them speak well of him. He could have plucked the three departments out of Tea Party- pandering talking points, not really believing in them. This is akin to memorizing meaningless facts for the next morning test. Chances are you’ll forget some of them before the test. Or maybe there was a discussion with the staff, and his mind was somewhere else

(“This f…  n’ smarmy Romney; when I’m in the W.H. I’ll treat him ugly, Texas-style”.

“Here Governor, Governor? These are the departments we are going to close; remember them”).

What is astonishing is the cynicism, or the stupidity, or maybe both, that is revealed by this innocent brain freeze. It is highly unlikely that any amount of serious thought and discussion was put into these glib solutions to our problems: just close those departments, for starters. Any wonder that even his neurons rebelled, refusing to thicken their connections to form a lasting memory of the inane scheme, as if embarrassed by it?

Here is a radical proposal: entrance exams for all presidential candidates, and an fMRI study of their brains.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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