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Friday, November 11, 2011

The Rick Perry Brain Freeze Examined

If you did not see the Republican Presidential debate the other night, you have probably heard by now about candidate Rick Perry’s “brain freeze” moment during the debate. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, it was painful to watch.

The point of this entry is not to examine this issue from a political perspective but to look at it from a neuropsychological perspective and present ways to prevent something like this happening to you if you need to give an oral presentation without Powerpoint slides. If you have not seen the video or do not care to, Perry was not able to name the third of three federal government agencies that he stated he would eliminate. The first was the Department of Education. The second was the Department of Commerce. And the third was…ummmm….the third was….Ooops. See for yourself here:

I have done a great deal of group presentations in my life. Most of them involve use of Powerpoint slides in my professional career, which allow you to easily reference information so you do not need to solely rely on your memory. However, sometimes you need to make the off the cuff remarks when responding to questions and other times you need to do a more spontaneous presentation of information in life (e.g., best man speech, accepting an award, presenting to a group over a teleconference).

One thing I try to (unless I know the topic in detail) is avoid citing a specific number of points that need to be made and then try to rattle off those points based purely on memory. This is because if you cannot retrieve one of the points, it will look very bad and is if you do not know what you are talking about. You lose the audience and they lose confidence in you. It looked even worse for Perry because he has a history of poor debate performances due to milder retrieval difficulties, characterized by brief but long enough pauses that they indicate he is struggling with finding the correct information he wants to say.

As alluded to earlier, retrieval of information is enhanced when the person is very familiar with the topic area. This is because brain cells form stronger and stronger connections with each other the more well-known the information is. The technical name for this is having strong synaptic connections. Synapses are the connections between nerve cells and those bridges become strengthened when learning is enhanced, improving the memory trace.

Clearly, Perry did not have detailed and specialized knowledge of this particular topic. It is possible that he may have rehearsed the information ahead of time, even many times, but sometimes pure rote rehearsal is not enough, especially when there are so many other pieces of information being rehearsed at the same time. We have all experienced this when cramming for a test. Something similar is likely the case for Rick Perry who made a last minute decision to run for the Presidency and thus had to try to memorize answers in many different areas.

There are some ways around using rehearsal as a way to improve memory efficiency and retrieval. One of the best methods is called chunking, in which you reduce lengthy pieces of information to remember into small, discrete units. An example is using an acronym. If Perry would have done this, he could have saved himself a lot of grief. For example, he could have used the acronym CEE (pronounced see) for which agencies he would like to “see” eliminated. In this case, the acronym CEE is one unit of information but it stands for three words: Commerce, Education, and Energy. These first letters basically serve as prompts for the department names.

Another technique is to make the information emotionally significant as this contextual significance improves the memory trace. Thus, if he could think of one significant example of something severely wrong with each of these three agencies (preferably personalized as much as possible) it would improve his chances of remembering the three groups.

Sometimes, you can know the material well but anxiety can interfere with performance. However, as a general rule of thumb, anxiety should decrease the more familiar one is with the task at hand. In Perry’s case, there likely was some anxiety due to his poor prior debate performances. He was intimately aware of this as he has been widely criticized in the past, spoke about it openly, and was publicly floating the idea of skipping the debates. While anxiety can lead to a word recall problem, anxiety will then increase further when the recall prolem occurs, which further interferes with coming up with the correct word. It is like a road block exists and that road block needs to be cleared before the frontal lobe (prefrontal cortex) can execute an effective search and help the medial temporal lobe access the correct information. The medial temporal lobe acts as a memory retrieval and storage center.

If anxiety or some other emotion interferes with recall, it is good to have a backup plan, such as notes. Being familiar with the notes is key because you need to remember where to look very quickly if you plan to recover form a brain freeze during a speech. Perry did not do this either because despite exploring his nodes on the podium, he could not come up with the correct word.

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