Why The Brain Farts
It’s happened to the best of us. Ever called your boss mum? Forgotten a word in the middle of an interview? Walked into a room with no idea as to why you’re there? Here at Peak, we can relate.
These little annoyances are unfortunately a part of life and they can happen to anyone at any given time. That’s not all, when they occur, they can make you feel incredibly stupid and may result in an overwhelming wave of embarrassment and shame washing over you. Which, of course is unending because maybe you’re still struggling to remember that word you forgot in that interview, that one time.
Quite fittingly, these occurrences are known as brainfarts, but they also go by various other names such as a brain blip, drawing a blank, losing your train of thought and brain cramp. The more scientific terms include lethologica and tip-of-the-tongue syndrome (TOT).
What Is A Brainfart?
A quick Google search will tell you that the definition of brainfart is a “temporary mental lapse or failure to reason correctly”, essentially it is a moment of ‘whoopsy daisy” in the brain and can often feel like a social faux pas. A more technical definition declares:
Tip-of-the-tongue states (henceforth, TOTs) as the conscious feeling that accompanies or reflects upon the cognitive process of retrieval when an item that a person is trying to retrieve is temporarily inaccessible.(Schwartz and Metcalfe, 2011)
The coinage of the scientific term lethologica is attributed to Carl Jung, but was first seen in an “1915 publication of Dorland’s American Illustrated Medical Dictionary”. Despite it being used over a 100 years ago, until quite recently, scientists and psychologists have been unsure as to what the reason is behind these little moments in the brain. However, we now have robust theories, a better understanding and grasp as to why these blips happen. There are of course, certain things which contribute to this phenomena and in this article we are going to shine a light on three everyday, science-backed reasons.
1. The Boundary Effect
The frustration of going into a room only to forget the reason we went in, is something we have all experienced at least once in our lives. There is however, a scientific cause as to why this may happen and it has a lot to do with something called the boundary effect. Research from a study conducted by the University of Notre Dame’s Psychology department suggests, walking through a doorway “serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away”. Furthermore, trying to recall the reason or thought you had may be difficult as the decision was made in another room, therefore, the brain compartmentalises it and stores it away.
2. The Moon Illusion
The moon is 384,400km away from us here on planet Earth. Although, on certain occasions, we might look at the sky and note the moon looks particularly big and appears to be closer than we thought. It may feel like your mind is playing a trick on you, or maybe the moon has always been that big and you’re only just noticing. Don’t fear, you’re not losing your mind. This is due to an illusion, or rather the “Ponzo illusion” which is essentially a geometrical-optical illusion which suggests that the human brain distorts an image’s size based on its background perspective (Illusionindex, 2019). For example, the moon will look bigger when it is closer to the horizon versus when it is high in the sky and will look smaller, and further away. See, there is always a scientific reason for everything (except maybe fairies and Santa Claus).
3. On The Tip Of Your…
Tip of the Tongue syndrome (TOT), or its sciency name, lethologica, is the “momentary inability to remember the proper word”. Linguists and scientists believe the reason this happens is due to the fact, “words which we may forget are often the words we rarely use, including proper nouns”. Researchers believe this phenomenon has much to do with brain memory storage capacity. Moreover, “our minds are associative and are built out of patterns of interconnected information, how well we can recall a word may depend on these patterns or links to other important bits of information” (BBC, 2016).
So the next time you experience a brainfart or blip or lethologica, you know what it is and there is no need to panic. In most instances, the word or item you forgot will come back into your mind and to avoid forgetting it again, try saying the word out loud several times to lodge it into your memory. Otherwise, use useful alternatives such as: thingy or thingymajiggy to fill whatever void your TOT has left.
Schwartz, B. and Metcalfe, J. (2011). Tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) states: retrieval, behavior, and experience. Memory & Cognition, 39(5), pp.737-749.