You almost had to feel sorry for Rick Perry last night.
His breathtaking inability to remember the third federal agency he’d shut down as President (!!) was so utterly embarrassing — at that level, in that context, for that long — I wondered whether there must be some biological breakdown behind it.
So I emailed leading memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard, and asked what he thought. Here’s his quick response:
The kind of memory problem suffered by Perry corresponds to what I called
“blocking” in my book on The Seven Sins of Memory (2001) – blocking is the third of the seven sins. Blocking refer to a temporary inability to retrieve information that is available in memory. Interestingly, blocking occurs most commonly for proper names, as was the case here. Blocking can be increased by stress and also by aging, although we can’t know for sure whether either one was a factor in this instance. Also, blocking tends to occur for information that is familiar, but has not been retrieved frequently or recently – again, I don’t know for sure whether that applies here.