We’ve all been there, which may have been what made Rick Perry’s gaffe during Wednesday night’s televised Republican debates extra grimace-inducing. In a media interview on Thursday morning, the Texas governor defended his failure to recall the name of the third government agency he wanted to abolish – a glitch punctuated by an embarrassing “oops” – by pointing out that “All of us make mistakes. I’m a human being.”
But what’s actually happening in our brains when we screw up?
Mark Fenske, an associate professor of neuroscience and cognitive science at the University of Guelph, says that brain farts can often be attributed to how stress and a narrow focus affect the brain.
When we’re anxious, certain areas of our brain begin to overreact: namely the amygdala and the insula. The amygdala processes emotions like fear, while the insula is involved with motor control and emotions like disgust. When these areas are highly active, there is less contribution from regions along the top and outermost parts of the brain responsible for more cognitive functions, such as thinking, remembering, and making decisions.
When our brain becomes narrowly focused – as Perry’s brain was when it was suggested that the name of the forgotten agency was the Environmental Protection Agency – it becomes even more difficult to perform these more analytical functions and incorporate information from a variety of sources.
“With Perry, he gets two of his three things that he’s trying to remember and he gets a miscue and can’t remember,” Dr. Fenske says. “And then even worse, someone gives him EPA as a target so now he locks onto that, further inhibiting the correct one he’s trying to bring to mind.”
So what to do if you find yourself mangling an all-candidates debate? Dr. Fenske says forget continuing to search for the answer – your best bet is to move on to another subject. “If you’re Rick Perry, redirecting and talking about something else for a little while will allow that information to come back, instead of continuing to try to think about it.”