The Science Behind Rick Perry’s Debate Brain Freeze

What was happening in Rick Perry’s gray matter Wednesday, when he choked and forgot his talking points before an audience of millions? Sharon Begley explains the science behind the brain freeze.

Oh, for a long-distance brain-scanning machine! During the 50 agonizing seconds when Rick Perry tried and failed to come up with the third of the three federal agencies he vowed to slash if he won the White House—a failure that has The Daily Beast’s Mark McKinnon calling for last rites for the Texas governor’s campaign—you could see the deer-in the-headlights look on the poor guy’s face. But what would have been fascinating, and revealing, would have been to see how his gray matter was seizing up like a car engine with a leaky crankcase.

Perry was the victim of brain freeze, and we have seen this movie before. It tends to occur when we’re swimming in a sea of information, which certainly describes the presidential hopefuls (have you seen the size of their briefing books?).

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.

Perry’s panic caused his brain to be flooded with cortisol, which impaired his cognitive function and memory, releasing more cortisol. The guy didn’t stand a chance.

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.

Since Perry had failed to wow viewers in recent debates, he was very likely trying too hard to succeed, which can also trigger brain freeze. This is what sometimes happens to athletes and other competitors: they know something, or how to do something, extremely well, but by focusing on it too intently rather than allowing unconscious processes to flow, they choke. 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.

Or so I’d guess. Without that remote brain imaging, there’s no way to be sure. But this type of technology isn’t science fiction. Researchers are discussing quite seriously the possibility of what they call a “remote” and “possibly even surreptitious” fMRI scanner. Here’s hoping it’ll be ready for the 2016 elections.