“Commerce, education, and the uh…what’s the third one there…let’s see…?” Regardless of your political views, it’s hard not to feel for Governor Rick Perry and his latest Brain Freeze incident at the debates. Anyone who watched the debate or saw the clip on Youtube can relate to the feeling of living in those 53 seconds of torment where he tried to retrieve a missing word from his memory. Even if it is only a case of schadenfreude where you enjoy a gleeful grin because you’re so thankful that it wasn’t you up there at the podium. We’ve all been there before. Tennis players can relate when the match is on their racquet and they feel frozen in space like they’ve never swung before. Their feet don’t move, their arms are like blocks of stone and the object they’re holding feels as foreign to them as a cell phone would to a caveman. Students experience this in the midst of a big exam when they flash their eyes on the page and the questions seem to be in a foreign language. Actors have a recurring nightmare of being on stage in front of a full house and going totally blank on lines, blocking, everything, as if they were in front of everyone in their birthday suit. The terror. The humiliation. It’s far worse than the other kind of brain freeze which happens when you bite into a scoop of ice cream. That’s a momentary headache that eases fairly quickly. Governor Perry’s brain freeze spiraled like a Hitchcock movie where you could imagine he was in a terrible scene from “No Exit.”

Of course this was the talk of the town last week, this “Oops” moment. Many writers turned to neuroscience to understand what actually happened to Perry’s brain during those 53 seconds. In his article for the International Business Times, “Anatomy of ‘Oops’: The Science Behind Rick Perry’s Brain Freeze,” writer Joseph Orovic calls upon Dr. Jason Brandt, a professor of Psychiatry and Neurology, to explain the phenomenon. According to Brandt, he writes, “The brain has a memory system of interconnected nodes, more than free-standing facts, mixing together in a messy bunch.” Carrying so much information in one’s consciousness, especially if unrehearsed, is a huge potential for blockage. When there’s excess arousal, as in Perry’s case with a national debate for the GOP Presidential nomination, broadcast live in front of millions of people where there’s enormous pressure to do well in order to reverse a negative performance record in order to stay in the race, you’re just an accident waiting to happen. The information is pushed farther back.

Orovic also sites Yale Professor Dr. Amy Arnsten who will be publishing an article in the coming weeks dealing with research she has done on the prefrontal cortex and memory. According to her, “When you feel out of control, there are a series of chemical events in the brain that open ion channels near synapses in the prefrontal cortex, which temporarily weakens those synapses causing the prefrontal neuronal networks to disconnect…The cells stop firing, and your mind goes blank.”

Dr. Arnsten and her team have been observing the functioning of individual neurons in the brains of monkeys as they performed working memory tasks. These neurons, called pyramidal cells for their triangular-shaped cell body, comprise most of the active neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Arranged in circuits, they excite each other to maintain neuronal firing and that keeps information “in mind.” These circuits are very sensitive to the many neurotransmitters and other compounds that surround them and Arnsten and her team have ascertained that small chemical changes occurring even with mild stress can affect the firing of prefrontal pyramidal cells.

In the case of Governor Perry, neurotransmitters called catecholamines (=adrenaline) were released into his prefrontal cortex. These caused the ion channels on the dendrites (spines) of his neurons to open where normally they would be closed. It’s much like what happens with a garden hose with holes; the water scatters and doesn’t travel to your flowers. Same thing with the opened ion channels which weaken the ability of the pyramidal cells to communicate with each other. No communication, no excitement, no information “in mind.” Bye bye working memory and for Gov. Perry, bye bye missing word—“Energy.”

How to handle this? Breathing is good…a sense of humor also good…Orovic cites Lisa Son, a professor from Columbia University, who suggests to her students that they be a bit nervous when they study, releasing a dose of cortisol (the stress hormone), which leads to better memory. Okay, maybe that’s a good rehearsal for the big upcoming exam. But they should remember that a little dose of cortisol goes a long way; too much will lead to more paralysis, as we have seen. When all is said and done, there’s a lot to be said for mastery of a subject because there’s no argument against full comprehension and total control of content.

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