Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Science Behind Rick Perry’s Debate Brain Freeze

Sharon Begley explains:
When the brain juggles a reasonable quantity of information and tries to make sense of it—as Perry was presumably trying to do as he channeled what he knew, and began to answer CNBC moderator Maria Bartiromo’s question—activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, increases: this is the circuitry that handles decision making and emotional control.

But as you attempt to tap into more and more information, as Perry was presumably trying to do (imagine him desperately going down the list of cabinet departments and other federal agencies trying to come up with the third one on his hit list), activity in the dorsolateral PFC drops like a stone. It’s as if a circuit breaker pops as a result of “cognitive and information overload,” Angelika Dimoka of Temple University told me for a recent story.

When the dorsolateral PFC goes tilt, things go downhill fast, cognitively speaking. This is also the region responsible for reining in emotions. As Perry struggled to come up with (as it turned out) “The Department of Energy,” his levels of the stress hormone cortisol undoubtedly went through the roof. Cortisol is bad for your brain, particularly the hippocampus, which encodes memories. Perry’s panic caused his brain to be flooded with the hormone, which impaired his cognitive function and memory even more, which released more cortisol. The guy didn’t stand a chance...

Effortful, deliberate attention is beneficial for learning new information and planning answers, as the candidates do in debate prep, but the goal is to make your answers almost automatic. If you instead think consciously about your performance, you’re at risk of choking, as Perry did. From her research on choking among athletes, psychologist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago, author of the 2010 book Choke, advises, “Let your unconscious take over, as the best athletes do. When a skill is well learned, there should be less activation of the prefrontal cortex”—the seat of planning, judgment and other higher-order functions. Again, it was overactivation of the PFC, a prelude to its disastrous shutting down, that sunk Perry last night.


  1. Huh, I just figured he couldn't recall the details of Ron Paul's budget cutting plan that he had borrowed and was looking to him for help as his memory failed.

  2. The voodoo gvnr from the largest state in the American Union.Lots of people down there must either be somewhat mentally deficient,or altogether brain dead,more so when they failed to put Debra Medina last year where she belonged and ship Ricky to Honduras where he can really feel at home.Ladies and Gentlemen, this person was/is a top tier candidate for President of this United States? Wait a minute,where are we?
    Matt Taibbi from the Rolling Stones Mag bagged Perry up just days before he completely melted last night.
    You never know however,with things going as they are, we may get what we deserve again, or worse.

  3. Yeah, if it were me instead of Ron Paul, I would have been talking out loud, suggesting to Rick other parts of my platform, that Perry hadn't taken on yet. Just to get them mentioned again during the debate. Like, "phase out Social Security? Is that it?", "end the Federal Reserve?", "repeal the Patriot Act?" Silly things that would make the audience think, "which of Ron Paul's positions is Rick Perry trying to remember?"

    Or Ron Paul could have held up an index card and stage-whispered "it starts with an E". Or something else funny like that.

    Yes, I know that I am weird. The classy thing for Ron to have done would be to just tell Rick what he was trying to remember, Ron probably could have guessed.

  4. Wow! Do you think Perry could explain that if you wrote it out on a card for him? Nope. He had a major brain fart, plain and simple!

  5. This illustrates the difference between Paul and Perry (ok, really, Paul and everyone else). Perry has had to memorize what are the 3 departments. Paul OWNS that information. It's part of him.

  6. Ron Paul did attempt to help Perry out. When he first said there were 3 agencies he wanted to eliminate, Paul said "No, five."