'Aleppo Moments': What Causes Our Brains to Freeze Under Pressure?

ertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson gestures he speaks with the media at a rally on September 10, 2016 in New York. Johnson called his second brain freeze an 'Aleppo moment.' BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images

Poor Gary Johnson. The man wants to be president, but it seems that every time the spotlight finally swings his way, he pulls a deer-in-the-headlights, cat-got-your-tongue thing.

"Brain fart" is the colloquial term for Johnson's mental toe-stubs. Some people, though, might say that Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, had a "brain freeze" or two.


Whatever, the first occurred when he couldn't identify a major city in war-torn Syria during an on-camera interview. ("Aleppo? And what is Aleppo?") The second came in an interview a couple weeks later when he froze up again trying to name his favorite foreign leader. Couldn't come up with a single name.

Big-time brain fart.

(We're sticking with the gassier name for the phenomenon, to keep it from getting confused with the other kind of brain freeze.)

Johnson's intracranial gas-passes — yeah, let's go with brain farts — were stunning and extremely embarrassing, but they hardly were unprecedented. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, let one rip in the 2011 election during a debate. Candidate Herman Cain had one the same year. Former Arizona governor Jan Brewer actually laughed in an embarrassingly long one on TV in 2010.

It's happened to beauty queens. More than once.

And let's be fair. It's probably happened to you, too.

What's going on here?

"It's actually a pretty interesting phenomenon," says Seth Norrholm, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine. "We're talking about an impairment in recalling something from your memory. So you have to look at a few things ... like how well was the information encoded to begin with — how well it was learned, in other words."

That's one possible explanation. A few studies, old and new, help show what else might be happening during a brain fart. For some time, scientists have known that stress can mess up your thought processes. Erno Hermans, an expert in cognitive and affective neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in the Netherlands, put it this way in the introduction to a 2011 study that appeared in the journal Science:

Acute stress alters the way our brain functions. This brain-state shift can be understood as a strategic reallocation of resources to functions that are vital when survival is at stake: It sharpens our senses, creates a state of fearful arousal, and strengthens our memories of stressful experiences, but impairs our capacity for slow deliberation.

The italics (ours) are to emphasize that slow deliberation — as in a debate, or in answering a question in front of the judges at a beauty pageant, or meeting your in-laws for the first time — gets hijacked when you're under stress. It's a proven chemical reaction in the brain.

Specifically, it is part of what is called the "fight or flight" instinct. The idea is that, evolutionarily speaking, when it comes to thinking in a stressful situation ("Hmmm, I wonder whether that bear is going to attack me?") or acting, the brain often shuts down and lets the body take over ("Run!").

Johnson's brain, faced with the stress of the interview, was essentially saying: Screw this. We are outta here.

"That's something we spend a lot of time studying here at Emory," says Norrholm. "Whether it's internal or external sources of stress and anxiety, this can impact how well you recall memory.

"Let's say we go back to a scenario where you're giving a presentation, and the dean of the college is sitting in the audience. That produces this physiological response where your heart starts to race, you may start to have sweaty palms and your breathing changes. All the sudden your focus is no longer on the content of what you were going to speak about. It is very much a fight or flight response. It's your body's alarm system saying there's something wrong."

Age may have something to do with it, too, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Iowa, especially if a life of stress has released certain hormones that can affect the brain over time. But short-term stressful events — again, the presentation, the debate, the pageant, those dang in-laws staring at you over the table, always staring, always prying, with those eyes, always looking — can bring on the brain farts, too.

A lack of sleep could be another problem, according to another paper. Whatever it is, we all get the brain farts once in a while.

It's Not Surprising

After Johnson's first brain fart, he was asked to explain what he was thinking — or, perhaps more accurately, why he wasn't thinking correctly. He said that at the time he thought that Aleppo was an acronym.

That's not that far-fetched, Norrholm says.

"When you're in an interview and the cameras are on you and the lights are on you, you may not come to the same understanding of say, the host or the moderator. You're keyed up. You're stressed out," Norrholm says. "It's certainly reasonable that in the moment, as his mind is racing and he can feel the eyes on him, that he heard an acronym and not a Syrian city."

So maybe we should give Gary Johnson a break and go back to picking apart the other candidates' mistakes.