The Brain Fart — What Causes It?

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You walk into the grocery store, and that list of three things you didn’t write down (but instead repeated to yourself several times so you wouldn’t forget) evaporates. You walk up the stairs on an errand only to find that you’ve completely forgotten why you came. You miss your exit on the drive home from work, even though you’ve driven it hundreds of times.

The brain fart … that shifty thief has long been accused of random lapses of thought that give us pause … literally … while we try to remember or retrace our paths.

“Having brain farts is just part of being human,” suggests an article for Discover magazine. Studies indicate that our brains conserve energy when we’re doing something repetitive. These little breaks happen right before the memory lapse.

Research findings from one study are summarized as follows on “The default mode network (DMN) of your brain is responsible for your inward-focused thinking, such as daydreaming. But this is far from a passive activity, and actually uses up a lot of energy. The DMN competes, in a sense, with other areas of your brain for resources, and in order for you to carry out a task that requires focused attention, your brain must inhibit the DMN.”

But the DMN is the default setting of your brain, so you will probably revert back to it while performing many tasks throughout your daily routine. Your brain perceives many of these tasks as patterns (They’re activities you’ve done many times before.) so your brain may take a quick timeout. “As much as 30 seconds before test subjects in one study made a mistake, blood flow started to decrease in the part of the brain associated with maintaining focus,” summarizes Robbie Gonzalez of Dr. Tom Eichele’s 2007 research. “Autopilot would be a better metaphor,” explains Dr. Stefan Debener, collaborator on the study.

It’s during this idle state of mind, “when your brain is shutting down some of its processing systems it believes you don’t need in that moment, that brain farts are likely to occur.” Your walk up the stairs or into your neighborhood grocery store, your drive home … these are things your brain recognizes as repetitive and sees as opportunities for a quick timeout. That timeout leads to the mental lapse.

“Fortunately, DMN blips are typically short-lived, and once you realize you’ve made an error your brain will likely kick into overdrive to try and correct the mistake.”

Since brain farts are part of being human, it’s unlikely you can eliminate them. But increasing brain function through learning or games helps build memory skills.



If you would like to reread our article on the aha moment  — when your brain is surging with great ideas you can be proud of — check it out here.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.