A brain fart (may be jocularly derived from "brainstorm") is slang for a special kind of abnormal brain activity which results in human error while performing a repetitive task, or more generally denoting a degree of mental laxity or any task-related forgetfulness, such as forgetting how to hold a fork. Tom Eichele, a neuroscientist at the University of Bergen in Norway, was part of an international team of researchers who identified activity detectable in brain scans up to thirty seconds before a mistake, which could be referred to as a brain fart, occurs. The researchers suspect the abnormal behavior is the result of the brain attempting to save effort on a task by entering a more restful state. The scientific term given to this phenomenon is a "maladaptive brain activity change".
The process regarding how and why brain farts occur involves what neurologists call the default mode network of the brain. The default mode network's activity is seen to increase when inward-focused thinking, such as daydreaming, is occurring in the brain while performing a repetitive task. This leads the brain to a state of mind that is similar to an autopilot program; the brain is actively thinking but consciously resting its sensory functions. This redirection of focus begins by the brain shutting off "non-essential" processes, namely the expectations the user has of the results upon completing a cycle of their task, and allocating this brain power towards the thoughts running through its default mode network. According to Vince Calhoun, an expert in brain image analysis of magnetic resonance at the University of New Mexico, "Brains love to pick up regularities, patterns, rules...as you generate an expectation, you become less attentive." This gradual transition of the active consciousness over toward the default mode network forms the suitable environment for a maladaptive brain activity change to occur. This shift of focus from the task leaves the user more prone to make a mistake in their performance, leading to what is commonly known as a brain fart. Neurologists have concluded that while routinely executing repetitive tasks, "the tendancy to economize task performance leads to an inappropriate reduction of effort, causing errors."
When the brain is inwardly focused and the task at hand is left to the default mode network's responsibility, there is an eventual collision between the two that results in the user producing a result different than expected. The brain more often than not interprets this atypical outcome as a mistake, which results in the productive surge of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. The brain will then divert its resources back toward conscious interaction and away from the default mode network. A study done by the US National Academy of Sciences noted that the brain gradually transitions from an awakened consciousness of the task toward their default mode network, but, "Whenever the performance monitoring system encounters an event indicating a performance problem, such as an overt error...the activity pattern is reset to a state supporting the recruitment of cognitive control." Depending on the magnitude of the mistake and the importance of the task, the user is more or less adversely affected and may take some time to reach their previous homeostatic state.
Etymology and use
The term is typically employed in the United States to indicate a regrettable and poorly thought out choice of action. According to Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Denis Gauthier a brain fart occurs when one "momentarily loses his sense of logic…and does something 'dumb'."
A further clarification comes from investigative journalist Louie Pierson, who proffers that while accidents are preventable, "brain farts are unpredictable, unpreventable and universal", and advances the theory that Mother Nature had "added the unfathomable minor irritant of the brain fart as a failsafe backup."
The derivation of the term may be related to the term "brain infarction"; however, a more likely etiology is the direct comparison of the episode of forgetfulness escaping one's brain without check to the accidental production of flatus. The term may also be used to inelegantly refer to a situation in which one speaks out of turn. Lexicologists demur, preferring the definition of "losing one's train of thought".
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- Eichele, Tom; Debener, Stefan; Calhoun, Vince D.; Specht, Karsten; Engel, Andreas K.; Hugdahl, Kenneth; Cramon, D. Yves von; Ullsperger, Markus (April 21, 2008). "Prediction of human errors by maladaptive changes in event-related brain networks". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (16): 6173–8. doi:10.1073/pnas.0708965105. PMID 18427123.
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