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Presidentiality: The science behind Rick Perry’s brain freeze

Presidentiality” is Need to Know’s web-exclusive video series that dissects what the candidates are saying, doing and promising on the campaign trail. Each episode takes the language of the 2012 election out of the political realm and deconstructs it through the lenses of historical precedent, economic theory and science.

At the Michigan debate this week, Governor Rick Perry suffered what many are calling a potentially campaign-wrecking lapse of memory. His budget-cutting plan calls for the elimination of three federal agencies — a massive and far-reaching alteration to the size and scope of the federal government. But when it came up in the debate, Perry stammered awkwardly, trying to remember the name of one of the agencies he had proposed scrapping.

Apparently the governor was trying to say “Department of Energy,” but he couldn’t find the words. One adviser called it a “human moment,” which is true. As we find in this week’s “Presidentiality,” Perry may have been suffering from the very common “Tip of the Tongue” phenomenon.

“Tip of the tongue,” or Presque Vu — French for “almost seen” — is the odd condition of almost remembering something. Research shows that pretty much everybody experiences this frustrating mental block once in a while, regardless of what language they speak. Even those who use sign language experience what you might call “tip of the fingers.” Ever since the psychologist William James first described “tip of the tongue” syndrome in 1890, scientists have been trying to figure out what causes these temporary brain melts.

One possibility is commonly called the “blocking hypothesis,” which basically means that the word or phrase you’re looking for gets “blocked” by something that sounds very similar. Often, when people are experiencing the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, they can remember the first letter of the word they’re searching for, or its cadence, but that’s it. Their brains have recalled another, similar word that they know is incorrect — but the the wrong word obscures the right one from conscious thought.

So, if you’re Rick Perry and you’re trying to remember the word “Energy,” words like “Elegy” or “Entropy” might pop into your head, pushing the word you’re looking for down into your subconscious.

At one point during Perry’s lapse, his rival, Mitt Romney, tried to help by offering “the EPA” as a suggestion — but if the blocking hypothesis is correct, Romney may have actually made Perry’s brain melt worsePerry was looking for an “E” word, and Romney’s suggestion started with an E, too.

Contending with “tip of the tongue” can be agonizing, and people who suffer from it have reported experiencing “mild anguish” until they can finally remember the word they’re grasping for and resolve the block. And judging by the reaction to Rick Perry’s episode, the people witnessing “tip of the tongue” can feel some serious anguish, too.