Brain Farts!! Stop laughing. This is real science, dammit.

by ToriDeaux on April 24, 2008

'OOps.  I didn't do it!' 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.)

 A Honking Big Brain Scanner ( fMRI courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)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, Thought Synthesizer: I want one!  Seriously, I love this CC image by Krischall on Flickr.  Check out the links on the original. Highly amusing.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..

(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.)


{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dorian aka coffeeister |_|) 04.24.08 at 5:35 pm

As someone who’s constantly fighting off brain fog, I’m both relieved & slightly disgusted that fog may be comprised of farts. The concept of my brain trying to relax definitely tracks tho’, esp. in conjunction w/chronic pain, as a coping mechanism.

I’ve always been cognizant that repetition leads to mistakes &/or zoning out. I also often ‘have’ to keep Tivo playing in the background to help my brain stay alert. While I wasn’t clear why breaking up the monotony was so important, perhaps I am now..

|_|) “I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.” ~ Dr. Seuss

2 Tori Deaux 04.26.08 at 1:08 pm

The Brain Fart Fog — you’re right, that’s a disgusting idea! (And yet, memorable. I might have to steal it some time… ) But you mentioned “breaking up the monotony” — according to Medina’s “Brain Rules”, we have about 10 minutes worth of attention before we tend to wander off course. It makes sense to me, I do well with ten minute bursts of productivity. There’s even an official hack on the topic somewhere around here… aha!:

3 Dawn 04.26.08 at 4:56 pm

“is dawn allowed to steal your thunder like that?”

*moderator edit*

<insert copious amounts of clever and meaningful commentary unfairly deleted by an evil Wordpress wind>

<insert apology from blog author for not having anticipated the problem and previously installed a Wordpress air freshener>

4 Dawn 04.26.08 at 4:57 pm

hey! what happened to the rest of my comment? is it being censored? dammit, you used “fart” first. what kinda nazi policy is this?!?

5 Tori Deaux 04.26.08 at 6:11 pm

Easy there Dawn! No censoring is going on, I swear… you even have a “preferred commenter status” which means there’s no moderation. (See how good to you I am?)

Tell you what, since your no doubt meaningful and witty comment was unfairly truncated by the “Evil Winds” of Wordpress, I’ll go back and fix it for you….

There. Better?

6 Puncuk 04.27.08 at 2:12 am

I read this post yesterday, chortled at the end imagining a ginormously unwieldy brainwave monitor yelling out brain fart alarms and resumed my normal activities… Today, on NPR’s Wait wait… Don’t Tell Me (a satirical quiz show on recent news stories) one of the questions was about a hat that was able to alert the wearer of an impending failure of concentration as early as 6 minutes ahead of time. Of course I may not have been appropriately concentrating at the time, so I will have to listen to it again when the podcast is released.

p.s. I wonder if the hat is cute.

7 Tori Deaux 04.29.08 at 11:11 am

Puncuk: Now I can’t stop trying to picture “cute” and “brain-fart detecting hat” in the same item of haberdashery!

8 Puncuk 05.01.08 at 12:20 am

I have only two words for you now… ready?? BRAIN BONNET!

9 Deb Clendenning 05.02.08 at 3:04 pm

Wish the brain bonnets came in assorted styles,
so we can use them with different outfits. You
know use stylish types…Got to keep up with the times while we are regaining our re-thinkabilities…I have a TBI injury so I have to re-thing every single thing I do…What are your thoughts? Stylish Brain Bonnet’s???

10 Deb Clendenning 05.02.08 at 3:09 pm

Brain Bonnet’s in different styls for different
age levels?

11 Tori Deaux 05.02.08 at 8:31 pm

Great idea, Deb! Brain bonnets MUST be fashionable, and styled age-appropriately. Hey, maybe we can get Project Runway interested? ;)

12 Hi Tori, It's Me Deb! 05.26.08 at 12:52 pm

Have you heard from Project Runway? I had surgery and on the mend this
month. It is Memorial Day so wanted to check in with you. First day back
on computer…. Best of luck with the Brain Bonnets keep it going Tori!
Your buddy, aka, Torino Girl!

13 Tori Deaux 05.28.08 at 12:46 pm

No, Project Runway hasn’t signed on yet, but I’m sure they’re just feeling a bit shy and intimidated about working with me and will find the courage to sign on soon

Welcome back, Deb, and hope you’re mending quickly!

14 Hi Tori, It's Me Deb! 05.31.08 at 11:32 am

Hi Tori, It’s me, Deb once again on a Saturday morning!
What about the stylish brain bonnets with designs already
on them! Ready to go off the shelf. Some could change colors
like a lizard does when they go out in the sun! Just an idea!

15 Puncuk 05.31.08 at 7:05 pm

Ooooh, a chameleon chapeau as brain bonnet. *ponders*

16 Tori Deaux 06.02.08 at 11:22 am

I really must draw the line at brainfart detecting lizards worn as headgear. I’m sure the FDA (not to mention PETA and the Fashion Police) would object.

17 Time lost is where moments are found.. — (|_| Drink Deeply |_|) 08.10.08 at 5:22 pm

[...] of writing lost before letting my foot be her plaything upon continuing. Tori Deaux of MindTweaks shared a study wherein participants were given a simple, monotonous game to [...]