I was absent-mindedly shoveling cereal into my mouth when the brainfart struck: my hand decided to reroute the incoming spoon’s flight trajectory into my cheek. As I sat there with milk dripping down my chin, my immediate reaction was to blame my hand. But then I realized that my hand had just been following orders. If anyone was to blame here, it was my brain. Turns out that neuroscientists agree with me.
Brain farts, the momentary lapses in attention that strike when you least expect them, may actually be rooted in abnormal patterns of brain activity. Neuroscientists call them “maladaptive brain states.” We spoke to researchers in an emerging field of neuroscience that examines these brain states to learn about the neurological basis of brain farts, their potential evolutionary origins, and how they might one day be a thing of the past.
For a long time, the mistakes caused by brain farts during monotonous tasks were chalked up to momentary, unavoidable fluctuations in brain activity. Consequently, much of the research since the early nineties surrounding human error and brain activity has been focused on how our brains react to mistakes in order to facilitate processes like correction and learning. In contrast, very little attention has been paid to what goes on in our brains in the moments leading up to a mistake.
But a handful of recent studies have demonstrated that what we refer to colloquially as “brain farts” may actually be rooted in a number maladaptive brain states. These unusual neural patterns happen when you’re doing monotonous or repetitive activities — and they can develop as many as thirty seconds before a mistake occurs. It’s this aspect of the maladaptive brain state that has led some scientists to conclude that we may one day be capable of predicting, and preventing, the elusive brain fart.