When discussing the human brain, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku once said, “Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.”
And that is absolutely true. When the brain does everything it’s supposed to do, it is remarkable. In fact, most of the time, I think we forget just how intricate our brains are. Right now, as you read this column, you are recognizing each word without any extra thought. You aren’t sounding out letters, like a kindergartner, you’re just reading … which means your brain has memorized thousands of combinations of letters.
And, at the same time, you’re also probably eating or drinking something, or maybe half-listening to something on the television.
And then, you’re also thinking complexly. You’re considering what this column means to you and your life, if it means anything at all.
Oh, and you’re also probably still breathing and metabolizing and that other stuff that keeps you alive.
And those are just the many tasks your brain is completing within a few seconds. Let’s face it, the brain is easily the most overworked and overlooked employee on the planet.
Which, I suppose, means we should forgive it when it slacks off a bit. We’ve all had those moments, when something we’ve done or said a million times goes wrong, and we wonder, “Why did we do that?” or “Why did we say that?”
They are the little snafus, the misspoken words and the momentary freezes that make us feel about as competent as Walt Disney’s Goofy.
And they happen so often there’s even a technical term for it — maladaptive brain activity change. In fact, there’s even research on it.
According to an article in Discover magazine, these lapses are a natural part of brain activity.
The article states that such goof-ups come with a “predictable neural pattern that emerges up to 30 seconds before they happen.”
Most of these occur during routine activity; these are mistakes that happen, not because someone has a lack of knowledge or skill, but because the brain has decided, quite simply, to put itself on automatic.
When individuals become absorbed in thought, as is common with routine activity, then a collection of the brain regions, which is known as the default mode network, takes control and “starts furiously popping away.”
Long story short, the brain, while being our most complex organ, is also our laziest.
Luckily, however, most of our biggest “maladaptive brain activity changes” are small and don’t come with many consequences … except, of course, the inevitable teasing which follows. (Or, at least, that’s how it is in my family.)
My mom had one of the most quotable moments, which happened during a trip to Gatlinburg.
It was getting late, and my mom, after a day of heavy-duty vacationing, was understandably tired. However, my brother, who was only about ten or eleven at the time, still had plenty of energy. We were walking along the strip, on our way back to the hotel, when my brother realized we hadn’t gone to one of his favorite stores.
The store, which sold salsas and sauces, had samples scattered everywhere. Not wanting to miss out, Seth turned to Mom and asked, “Can we go to the sample store?”
“No, Seth, let’s just go back to the room.”
“Because the double-dippers come out at night.”
No, my mom didn’t have some secret knowledge about vampiric individuals who rise from coffins when the sun goes down, armed with tortilla chips and saying “I vant to try your salsa.”
Let’s face it, in the long list of bad excuses, that one is probably up there with “the dog ate my homework.” Even my young brother didn’t fall for it.
And what’s really funny is that my mom doesn’t remember any thought process when she said it; the infamous “double dipper” excuse just came out of nowhere, like a vampire transforming from a bat.
Just proof of what the brain can (or can’t) do when it’s on autopilot.
Of course, I can’t share some “maladaptive brain activity changes” on my family without also telling about one of my own, because, goodness knows, I’ve had my fair share. But there is one in particular that I know I’ll still be hearing about even when I’ve retired and moved to Florida.
A few months ago, my family and I were out driving when something made me stop, mid-conversation. From the angle we were approaching, a horse grazing in a nearby field looked as though it had a large white horn on its head.
Now, as much as I might love fantasy stories like Harry Potter, I am well aware that unicorns are mythological. So, of course, I knew what I was seeing was actually the horse’s ear, sticking up, probably listening for something.
And what I meant to say was something along the lines of, “Wow, from here, that horse looks like a unicorn.”
What I actually said: “Is that a unicorn?”
As I said, that is one goof that I am never going to live down.
Though, to be fair, I’m not sure if I would want to. Mistakes, whether large or small, are simply a part of life.
There’s the old adage, of course, that a mistake isn’t really a mistake if you learn from it. And while I think there is a lot of truth in that, the fact remains that you can’t undo what you’ve done or unsay what you’ve said (especially if they involve salsa-loving vampires or unicorns).
So, yes, it is important to learn from our mistakes, but I think there is something else we have to do, too. We have to laugh at them.
Because if we can’t get a funny story out of a mistake (especially the small ones), then what good are they?
As L.M. Montgomery wrote in “Anne of Green Gables,” “Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.”
Sarah Allen works for Civitas Media at the Hillsboro Times-Gazette in Ohio.