The neuroscience behind Rick Perry's big oops

By now you've almost definitely heard about Rick Perry's painfully awkward, potentially campaign-ending gaffe during Wednesday night's Republican debate. (You haven't? Here, have a few helpings of sympathetic embarrassment.)

What you probably haven't read, however, is a scientific take on why it happened. Fortunately, The Washington Post's Joel Achenbach has published such a piece, interviewing a number of scientists and offering up some genuinely interesting insights on Perry's little mental mishap:

It happens more often as we age. But the brain scientists say it shouldn't be seen as evidence of an intellectual deficit or some medical problem. Instead, they say, retrieval failures offer a glimpse into how the brain does and doesn't work, not just in the skulls of presidential candidates but for everyone else, too.

It's impossible to know what exactly was happening inside Perry's head at the Republican presidential debate, and the pundit class will continue to debate whether it was a neurological hiccup or a telling sign of a candidate who doesn't know his own policies. What's certain is that, at a crucial moment, on stage, live on national television, Perry could not remember the name of one of the federal agencies he would like to abolish.

Once he started to flounder, he probably found himself entangled with unhelpful thoughts, suggested David Diamond, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of South Florida. In a stressful moment like this, the mind turns to the consequences of the error, making an elegant recovery all the harder.

"Even though Rick Perry's life was not being threatened, his brain was responding as if there was a lion in the audience about to pounce on him," Diamond said. "He's now got the media pouncing on him."

The governor's mental lapse did not occur in a vacuum. His previous debate performances have been widely panned, and he's been sliding in the polls, fighting a perception that he's not up to the job. He was speaking Wednesday night to an informed audience, one capable of understanding the nuances of policy. But he struggled with a talking point, opening himself to criticism that he doesn't have the depth of knowledge expected of a presidential candidate.

It was unclear Thursday whether his candidacy could survive his blunder. But among brain scientists, at least, he's getting a pass.

Read the rest over at The Washington Post