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Rick Perry’s brain freeze: What caused his memory lapse?

Even if you’d never vote for him, you have to feel bad for Rick Perry’s mental lapse in this week’s GOP presidential debate. (Watch the video if you haven’t yet seen the cringe-inducing 43 seconds he spends trying to remember the name of the third federal agency he’d shut down if he were president. “Commerce, Education and the -- what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” he said.)

We’ve all been there -- stuck in a stressful situation trying to grab the name that’s just on the tip of our tongues. Usually, though, we’re not being watched by an audience of millions, or taped for a youtube posting that millions more will watch.


Being more interested in health than politics, I’d like to learn about the brain processes that caused Perry’s memory to fail him rather than what it means for his future candidacy.

I asked Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter to give his best theories on what happened.

“The kind of memory problem suffered by Perry corresponds to what I called ‘blocking’ in my book, The Seven Sins of Memory,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Blocking refers to a temporary inability to retrieve information that is available in [the] memory. Interestingly, blocking occurs most commonly for proper names, as was the case here.”

He added that blocking can be exacerbated by stress, though he doesn’t know for certain that was the case with Perry. It also occurs more as people age. Overall, the condition happens more commonly for information that is familiar, but hasn’t been retrieved by the brain frequently or recently. “Again, I don’t know for sure whether that applies here,” he wrote.

Only Perry can tell us how often he thinks and talks about the Department of Energy -- the third agency he couldn’t remember he wanted to cut. Perhaps, not enough to see him through the debate.


Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.