Every once in a while we hear a story about a person in an extreme situation hulking out and doing something strongtacular, like lifting a dinosaur off of a loved one or fighting a bear over a hoagie.
Most of us read those stories and say, "Wait a second. Not only do I not take on superpowers when under stress, I actually get all shaky and poop my pants."
Well, science has been looking into all the hilarious ways we screw up, and not just because the research is hilarious. There are scientific reasons why it seems like your body turns on you at the worst possible moments.
A "brain fart" is the term that describes a sudden, unexplained instance of unknowledge. Like when you walk into a store for something and immediately forget what it was you came in for.
Wait, there it is.
Of course it's not just a minor inconvenience if it happens when you're blowing through that red light you didn't notice, or remembering you were supposed to turn the cooling tower on as your town's emergency alert sirens start going off.
So What's to Blame?
This has long considered just one of those mysteries of the brain, but researchers have recently done studies that found that your brain basically has a built-in sleep mode, like your PC. The "brain farts" weren't sudden, random glitches, but planned shut-downs. Up to 30 seconds before a mental fart occurred, researchers could see the relaxation centers of the brain lighting up and other sections going dark.
This "sleep mode" exists in your brain for the same reason it does on your PC: to conserve energy. The studies found brain farts usually happen when you're in the process of doing an activity that you've done a million times, like a routine task at work or skinning a jackrabbit. The thinking part of your brain figures it doesn't need to be around for that boring shit, and nods off.
The problem, of course, is that a whole lot of those repetitive tasks are also the most important things we do in the course of a day. Some of us have jobs where failing to do them right even once results in everything catching on fire.
"Dammit, brain! Not again!"
Tests showed that the sudden, horrible realization that your brain had checked out on you is usually all it takes to jolt it back into action. So basically the brain says, "I'm going on break, but don't worry, I'll be back as soon as you fuck something up."
"Hey, what'd I miss?"
Scientists are actually working on a mind-reading hat that can detect when you're in that 30-second countdown until brain-shutoff and prevent it. This is presumably for people who have the kind of jobs where even a momentary lapse of concentration can mean disaster. Lion tamers and such.
There's no way this idea can go wrong.
5"Choking" Under Pressure
There are only two things you and millionaire athletes have in common: You both could probably sleep with your wife if you ask nicely, and you both have a capacity for choking under pressure.
If you watch sports highlights regularly, you've probably seen it happen just this week. A field goal kicker misses the chip shot with no time on the clock; the NBA guard who had no problem scoring his first 30 points of the game can't drain his last two standing at the free throw line down by one with two seconds on the clock.
So What's to Blame?
Scientists (who were probably pissed that they have to spend six months writing a grant to fund their choke research when the aforementioned shooting guard was making an eight-figure salary) have actually studied the choking phenomenon. Why are some players "clutch" and others "chokers"? It has to do with how the brain learns new information.
When you first learn a skill, you learn it explicitly, which means you learn the technique of what you're attempting in a methodical, mechanical way. Like a robot.
But after a few thousands lay-ups or bat swings or alligator throat punches or whatever, the process becomes implicit, meaning you can do it without even thinking. If you're doing it in the realm of high-level athletics, that's absolutely essential because every move is done with split-second timing. Kobe Bryant often has to decide how he's going to approach the basket while in mid-air. There's no time to think, so how well you perform depends entirely on how well you've trained the instinctual part of your brain.
For the small portion of our readership who aren't professional athletes, you may have experienced the difference between explicit and implicit skills while walking in front of a room full of people, or typing while someone looks on, or flying down a stair case when some asshole tells you to "watch where you're going with that chainsaw." The moment you start thinking about it, the thing you've done a million times becomes awkward or impossible.
The problem is every now and then, particularly in high pressure situations, the explicit part of the brain that first learned those skills a thousand repetitions ago wants to come to the party, too. Your body suddenly reverts back to the technical, deliberate, awkward movements it took to learn the game. Suddenly, you're thinking through the task ("step one, grab the alligator around the jaws, step two, make a fist...") instead of just doing them in one lightning-fast, smooth motion. The ground ball skips off your glove because you're trying to field it with a part of your brain that hasn't played baseball since you were in little league. You "choke."
Aww... that's OK, sport. You'll get it next time! Who's ready for ice cream??