FYI Daily

Perry Debate Gaffe: A Common Forgetfulness

Last updated: Nov 14, 2011

Rick Perry

What was behind GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry's much-discussed mental lapse in a recent debate? Any Alzheimer's caregiver hypersensitive to memory loss might have felt a flicker of concern. Perry's inability to remember the third item in a list of three was, in fact, a common brain glitch called "tip of the tongue phenomenon," or TOT, explains University of Buffalo psycholinguist Gail Mauner.

TOT happens more often as you age, she says, but doesn't reflect problems with knowledge or intelligence. Rather, it's a temporary difficulty accessing sounds to a word we know we want to retrieve. This often happens with words we don't pronounce often (like "protractor" or "pulchritude"), so the link between meaning and sound isn't well connected in the brain, Mauner says. Proper names can be particularly problematic.

Perry was listing three government agencies he'd slash but could only recall two. Rival Mitt Romney asked if the third were the Environmental Protection Agency -- and Perry first said yes, then no. He'd actually meant the Department of Energy. Mauner says that Romney may have worsened the retrieval glitch by activating a close "E" sound; often we can retrieve similar sounds but not the one we actually want, which slows the search in the brain for the right word.

No explanation from Mauner as to why TOTs happen more as we get older -- but at least it's reassuring to those in midlife and beyond just how many different, common memory flubs plague us all, without signaling dementia.