The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Anatomy of a Brain Fart

Why we blow mental raspberries

They have proven themselves to be ribaldly revolting, perpetually perplexing, and endlessly entertaining. Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized them in literature, Samuel Johnson defined them in his dictionary, and Benjamin Franklin urged that they be scientifically studied by the Royal Academy of Brussels.

Not clued in yet? Pull my finger.

We are considering, in all seriousness, the ubiquitous mammalian propensity for reducing quantities of fermentable carbohydrates into what Thomas Wolfe so aptly described as the “fizzing and sulphuric.”

We’re talking, of course, about farts.

But this is a family publication devoted to a serious science of the mind and so, dear reader, you will find no dismissive suggestions about blaming things on the dog herein contained.

We will scrupulously avoid such distasteful phrases as “letting one rip” or “cutting the cheese.” We will ruthlessly edit all colloquialisms. We will not speak of “blowing a raspberry,” nor even fall back on the marginally more acceptable “breaking a foul wind.” We will purge ourselves of humor in all regards and soberly ponder only those aspects of flatulence as directly bear on the psychology of mind. We will, in short, not be farting about here. Our interest is anything but prurient.

We’ll leave to flatologists (and there are such folk in the field of medicine, poor dears) to delve into issues of bloating, chemical composition, expulsion velocity, and odor. Career change, anyone? It’s never too late, you know. By comparison, we with an interest in psychology can breathe easy. We can, in fact, leave all further mention of bowels . . . well . . . behind us, and approach our subject rather more safely and from the other end, so to speak.

It turns out, there is a rarefied fart, sans odor, we may claim as our own. It is responsible for what is known as maladaptive brain activity change. Otherwise known as – you guessed it – the brain fart. See the April 21, 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the study by University of Bergen, Norway neuroscientist Tom Eichele. We’re talking about serious stuff here.

According to the study of brain activity resulting in human error during repetitive tasks, brain farts are detectable by brain scans up to 30 seconds before the occurrence of a mistake. Probably, the researchers say, brain farts are byproducts of the brain’s efforts to save energy on tasks by entering a more restful state.

Normally, we recognize a brain fart only after it’s a bit too late. We speak out of turn or lose our train of thought. We forget the name of someone we’ve known for years. We suddenly forget how to eat and raise our soup spoon too far, jostle it with our nose, and dribble its contents down our chin.

Naturally, by “We” I don’t mean “Me.” Never happened. Just sayin’.

But whatever, it’s too late. The fart has left the brain. The horse has left the barn. The cat is out of the bag. A bird in the hand is worth . . .

Uh, actually, I guess that last one doesn’t quite work. I am at this moment raising my eyebrows in surprise, shrugging my shoulders apologetically, and sheepishly confessing: “Oops! Brain fart.”

Why do our brains betray us in such awkward, embarrassing ways?

Probably because routines, the bread-and-butter energy savers of our daily existence, are easy to disrupt. Context shifts – really just simple changes in circumstances – can throw the best of us for a loop. We are often especially prone to the disruptive influence of a context shift when we are attempting to perform a chained behavior – one in which completion of each individual behavioral link becomes the cue to perform the next behavior in the series.

When behaviors are well established, they tend to fall into well-worn neural grooves. Familiarity apparently signals the brain to downshift as an energy-saving measure, which makes us susceptible to glitches born of inattentiveness. We humans are not alone in fouling things up when a brain fart lets fly.

In teaching tasks to animals in my former career as a dolphin trainer, I regularly witnessed the behavioral back-stepping that is a normal and predictable part of any learning process. No one learns overnight, dolphins included.

But even fully trained dolphins who had become expert at performing all sorts of tasks occasionally experienced mental glitches. Interestingly, dolphins react to such moments with as much surprise as we humans do to ours.

When making a misstep during a series of routine behaviors, they will often pause mid-task, clearly aware they’ve done something odd. Some of them whistle or squeak in acknowledgement of the awkward moment. Others slap a pectoral fin against the surface of the water in mild frustration. And a great many of them slip beneath the waterline to expel a cloud of air from their blowhole in what looks, truly, like a world class brain fart of epic proportions. Now, isn’t that a gas?

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2014

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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