Sunday, 17 December 2017

Brain farts and other absent-minded moments

Fart - definition: do I have to spell this one out? We all know what a fart is.
It's Bertie Baggins emptying the room faster than even he could leap up at the rustle of wrapper and hint of a biscuit. Perhaps it's his passion for all things biscuit-crumby and sticky and generally curled up and slowly decaying that he finds on the kitchen floor or dead in the middle of a field that leads to the efficacy of his room-evacuating talent.

The picture of innocence

Farts are also the bubbles suggesting the early morning swimmers are using some internal combustion engine to propel themselves up the pool and that the changing room toilets are probably best avoided when the swimming session ends.
Farts are universally unpleasant and embarrassing; always and instantly orphaned and totally necessary. We all do them. Yes ... we do; all of us. At all ages; next time you're near a very young baby watch it jump in  surprise when it noisily passes wind.
Fart as flatulence is from the old English feorting but with possible German origins from ferzan or from the Old Norse freta. I have no idea why I should find word derivations interesting but I do (follow Robert Macfarlane on twitter if you also enjoy ancient words and their resurrection).

In English, fart has other meanings, too.

The old fart; the one who knew a cousin of your father's and corners you at a party and spends the evening discussing the relative merits of the different routes he could have taken to get to the party but didn't and wished he had because his journey had been delayed by first a minor accident and then a closed road. And you listen wishing that your father didn't have a cousin and that the minor accident hadn't been so minor and could perhaps have involved some more cars - one in particular - and then you feel guilty and you try to listen. But as your eyes start to wander and settle on the face of the one person you hoped would also have been invited and your head explodes along an unspiralling reel of picture stills - silver sand and squealing gulls; blue sea stretching to a horizon dotted with islands; a hot sun shimmering in the sky; and a warm hand folded into yours - the old fart twitches slightly, and blushes and your nose is suddenly assaulted with a stench of stale cabbage. The old fart has farted.

There is also the fart of foolish, irresponsible things. The fart of farting around. It is naughty and shameful and sometimes illicit. It belongs almost exclusively to teenage boys. And sometimes to an orange-hued adult whose day-care handlers should know better. This older, oranger fart is on a limited-run ticket and racing towards possible impeachment but, like the younger farts farting around, is essentially a time waster; particularly when playing golf. The fart of farting around is silly and disrupts the norm. And, in the case of the orange one, sometimes argues - until he is even oranger in the face or gets someone called Sarah to argue for him while he chain-sips coke in front of the television - that the unprovable is right and the science-based wrong. But as the orange-hued one has just banned - yes! Banned! - the use of the word science-based, along with evidence-based, vulnerable, diversity, transgender and fetus, I guess he is creating his own little world (... getting littler after Alabama) where he and Sarah can continue to fart around and not care about the health of other human beings and human rights and climate and all those boring things that might require reading more than a paragraph and interrupt the next opportunity to tweet narcissistic nonsense. Untrammelled farting around is globally hazardous and must be stopped.

Time to breathe. To count to ten. To gaze upon a nice picture. And remember that the words ridiculous, risible, ludicrous, stupid and impeach have not been banned.

Lastly, there is the fart which is the brain fart. This could be called forgetfulness. It is the disorientation when walking into a room and wondering why you are there. It is turning the radio on to listen to the forecast and realising ten minutes later that despite standing next to it you managed to sip your coffee and eat your porridge but heard absolutely nothing of the impending weather and still don't know if you will need an umbrella. It is describing to a stranger that you write a blog and in the moment of realising that you have shared this personal thing with him, struggle to grasp at any good words to describe it, and instead tell him it's "basically a brain fart." What!? I have never described it thus before. A ramble - yes. A rant - yes, sometimes. A slow meander through some thoughts and comments and happenings in my life - yes, because that is what it is. The dreams of a champion procrastinator - yes, often. But a brain fart? No. No. No.
Littlest frequently has self-confessed brain farts when there is a temporary disconnect between what is in her head and what comes out of her mouth. She has the agile brain of a teenager and sometimes its too-fast agility spills gibberish into the air. My brain no longer possesses that agility. The irony of the words I used is that I stumbled upon them precisely when I was suffering the moment of absent minded panic that we call a brain fart. My brain, if you like, suffered a brain fart and farted out the words "brain fart." Which is not what I wanted to say at all. The bubbles in the think tank of my brain rose to the surface and turned into words. Just not the words I expected.

Why do we suffer brain farts and where do they come from? I didn't really expect to find an answer to this but I did.

Imagine telling your granny at Christmas that you are studying brain farts. After she'd checked the settings on her hearing aids and if bringing up the subject of flatulence hadn't shocked/embarassed/confused her too much or convinced her that you were the liberally raised idiot she had always suspected, you could - if from the team at the university of Notre Dame in Indiana - explain that brain 'f's' are now called "doorway effects." Imagine watching her relax at this euphemistic substitution and wait for her lips to thin again as you proceed to tell her that we all suffer from brain farts. Even grannies.

While it might at first appear surprising that anyone would study brain farts - maybe for an April 1st publication or the Christmas Edition of the BMJ; the only BMJ worth reading cover to cover. Sorry if I've lost you - the BMJ is the British Medical Journal and to prove that doctors can be funny it publishes the whackier research articles from the previous year in its Christmas edition. The brain fart study, featured in the New Scientist (see link below), is not however whacky. It is serious. It looks at what happens in the brain when we forget things or appear absent minded or substitute the wrong name for something or commit a Freudian slip. And it's not just happening in Indiana. There are many teams in many different parts of the world looking into this phenomenon because, as I have indicated already, we all do it.

Studying brain farts leads to a classification of sorts.

There is the walking into a room and wondering why we are there sort, which is common and always peculiarly discombobulating. It can be solved by retracing your steps until the lightbulb comes back on and the thing you had gone to do or fetch is lit up within your consciousness and you can now do it or fetch it as previously planned. This phenomenon is thought to be caused by our brain compartmentalising our surroundings. It copes with creating an image of place inside our heads and there is a temporary blank moment when we walk into a new room when it readjusts. In this moment, we can't process both what we left behind and the reconfiguring of our new surroundings, so we forget why we are there. This is the 'doorway effect.'

At times of extreme stress we can experience a cascade of brain farts. We forget the details that define us; the facts that we previously thought so familiar that we pictured them branded into our conscious self. But no - after an accident or in moments of extreme embarrassment we blank: our address, our phone number, our date of birth evaporate. Our brain, flooded with panic, struggles to retrieve any meaningful memory. Gibberish is what comes out instead - brain fart after brain fart after brain fart. It feels like a nightmare. Like we are watching ourselves implode. This awareness makes the panic worse and as the tide of stress rises, we lose sight of ourselves and in extreme situations the brain fart nose dives into panic attack.

Milder, less distressing, brain fart types are these - calling your children by the wrong name (I do this all the time); seeing a face in the pattern of knots in the wood on the back of a door; calling your teacher/boss/doctor 'mummy'; signing off with kisses in a text to your builder/plumber/bank manager; fixating on a word until it becomes meaningless - the comedian Miranda Hart does this well when she over-repeats pet words until they no longer make any sense.

I suspect I have repeated brain fart rather too often here. Part embarrassment. Part hey-this-is-something-funny-that-also-has-meaning-and-could-be-interesting-and-perhaps-has-a-blog-in-it. And let's face it, I should be wrapping presents; turning several brown bananas into banana bread; hemming a pair of curtains; ordering last minute stocking fillers; writing Christmas cards and taking this pair for a walk

All of which I will go off and do now. And prepare lunch for the friends I had forgotten were coming. Soon!

This is the article in New Scientist on the study of brain farts

And on the subject of flatulent farts, here is Canada, very amusingly punching a hole in the social smoking habit of young Canadians - worth a giggle