Brain Farts!! Stop laughing. This is real science, dammit.
Don’t try to deny it, I know you’ve had them – everyone does – those embarrassing instants of mind-numbing stupidity. You’re faced with a task, question or action that you’ve done a thousand times, and yet, you flub it. Even worse, you may even recognize the problem *as you make it*, you may know that you’re about to screw up colossally, and yet, you’re unable to stop it. Brain fart. <cue obnoxious sound file>
Turns out, it’s more than just a cutesy way of explaining away our embarrassment over mental glitches. Brain farts are real. No, the brain doesn’t actually belch noxious fumes, but still — they are real, measurable events in the brain, and even more interesting, they’re predictable. Here’s the deal:
Researchers were looking in the brain for cues that a mistake was being made – hoping to spot some sort of activity blip that signaled an error, perhaps an instantaneous loss of concentration.
So participants in the study were given a simple, monotonous game to play, while the activity in their brain was measured (via fMRI, for those of you who know about such things.)
But there was no single blip or hiccup at the instant of the error. Instead, there was a complicated pattern of abnormal brain behavior. Even more surprisingly? The pattern showed up as much as 30 seconds before the mistake was made.
30 seconds: That’s a *really* long time, in speed-of-thought terms.
So what happened in those 30 seconds?
Even though the participants were alert and focused on their task, parts of the brain usually associated with relaxation began to light up.
At the same time, parts of the brain associated with cognitive control and sustained attention began to turn off. So even though they intended to stay alert, their brain was shutting down, forcing them into a less focused state.
So even though the person was paying attention, their brain stopped paying attention.
Tada. Brain fart.
The researchers think the brain may be shutting down to conserve energy. Since repetative, familar tasks don’t require much processing power, the brain tries to go into a sort of autopilot mode. Sometimes it goes too far, and the result is a mental glitch. Once the participants made and recognized their mistakes, the abnormal patterns vanished – apparently the error woke the brain back up, letting it know it had gone a step too far in its efforts at energy conservation.
With that all important 30 second factor, it might be possible to predict and prevent critical brain fart errors in high risk situations. ( like behind the wheel of a car or at the controls of an airplane.) If the brain activity involved can be detected by lightweight, portable monitors, a warning could be sounded that would “wake up” the brain, hopefully before the mistake was made.
Of course, it wouldn’t help much with the social embarrassment factor.
Having a brainwave monitor hooked to your skull might well be more embarrassing than the actual brain glitch, especially if it started sounding an alarm klaxon:
“Impending Brain Fart… Impending Brain Fart!
5.. 4.. 3.. 2.. WAKE UP STUPID!”
(suddenly, silent but deadly seems the better option, eh?)
I’d like to think I’d never do a gratuitous fart joke.
~Harold Ramis (but apparently, I’m not above it. ~M.T.)