Brain Hiccups

Brain Hiccups Illustration

The door is already swinging shut as a flash of horror hits me. Clunk.

There they are, my car keys, dangling from the side of the steering wheel, a few feet away and impossibly out of reach. The chill autumn evening is fading to dark; I’m in a rest stop 150 miles from home; and I’ve just locked my keys in my car. Right now I hate myself so much. Where’s my brain!?

The fact is, though, we all make dumb mistakes from time to time. Hitting “send” instead of “delete”; driving right past the exit you meant to take; calling your wife by your ex-girlfriend’s name. In the moment, you feel as though your brain has been replaced with a particularly uncerebral variety of brick. But it turns out that screwing up is a surprisingly subtle and nuanced phenomenon, one that results not despite our brain’s sophistication but because of it. Psychologists hope that by understanding how our brains go wrong, they can help us avoid snafus in the future.

The critical research began decades ago, when aviation experts began trying to understand the alarming rate of crashes that then plagued the industry. It was clear that a high proportion of the accidents were due not to mechanical failures but to human error. Researchers found that just as machines tend to break in certain specific ways—“failure modes,” as engineers put it—humans also tend to screw up in a limited number of predictable ways. To put it another way, there’s an order to our irrationality.

Our brains, it turns out, are much more like machines than we realize. As we roam around negotiating our world, it feels like we’re rational creatures who consciously control our behavior. But most of our actual behavior is carried out beyond our consciousness. “Human cognition can be divided between those processes that are automatic and those that are controlled,” explains Dr. Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California Los Angeles. Controlled processes, like writing a sonnet or planning a trip, take mental effort. Automatic processes tend to feel effortless, so much so we’re often hardly aware of them at all. “You have no problem opening your eyes and simultaneously experiencing all the objects that are in front of you,” Lieberman points out, even though quite a lot of complex processing is needed to achieve this feat. It just feels easy because all the work is being carried out behind the scrim of awareness.

Automatic brain systems govern both instinctive behavior and well-learned habits—anything you can do quickly and easily, such as brushing your teeth, recognizing your name amid the burble of strangers’ conversation, or jumping at the sound of a loud noise. The automatic brain is a powerful engine, speedy and efficient. But there’s a trade-off for all that speed. The automatic brain is dumb. When faced with multiple possibilities, it doesn’t reason through its options. Instead, it follows very simple rules of thumb, which psychologists call heuristics. The simplicity of these mental programs makes them lightning fast, but when they encounter something they’re not geared for, it’s like a band saw running into a nail.

One automatic routine I find particularly vexatious involves my ATM card. After years of using the cash machine down the block, my brain has developed a deeply ingrained habit: Swipe my card; put card in wallet; enter PIN; select amount of cash; pocket cash; walk away. Easy and effortless! The problem comes when I visit my parents’ home in Florida. The ATM at the bank closest to their house works a little differently: It’s designed to keep the card until the transaction is done. I swipe the card, but don’t return it to my wallet. The rest of the habit unfolds as always: I get the money, put it in my pocket, and walk away. Ten seconds later, the ATM spits out my card. But I’m not there.

I would have stopped making the mistake if I had learned a new habit for taking money out of that particular ATM. But one of the characteristics of the automatic brain is that it’s slow to learn. In 2009, a team led by psychologist Dr. Phillippa Lally at University College of London recruited volunteers who wanted to teach themselves a new habit, such as eating a piece of fruit every day at breakfast or going for a short jog. Every day the subjects were asked to record whether they’d carried out their tasks or not, and to rate whether a task seemed effortless or even “hard not to do,” as a fully ingrained habit can seem. When the results came in, Lally and her colleagues found most of the volunteers’ self-reports followed a similar pattern: The tasks were hard to do at first, but quickly became much easier, and then reached a plateau as the habit took hold. Getting there took persistence. Depending on the person and the habit they were trying to learn, automaticity took anywhere from 18 days to eight months to set in. Consistency turned out to be key. Those who kept blowing off their tasks were less likely to ever form the habit at all. In my case, I just don’t spend enough time in Florida to form a new pattern of behavior.

Many brain hiccup errors occur in a similar fashion—when the conscious and automatic parts of the brain get in each other’s way. When I forget my wife’s birthday, for instance, it’s not because I don’t love her; it’s because I’ve failed to pre-establish a cue that will trigger my conscious memory. When I miss the exit for my in-laws’ house and instead barrel along as if I’m driving to work—which happens to be two exits down the same highway—again, it’s not for lack of love for my in-laws. (No really!) It’s because distraction prevented me from consciously overriding my well-learned habit of going to the office.

In each case, the solution involves identifying where the automatic brain is going wrong and figuring out a way to interrupt that robotic behavior on your own. In the case of my wife’s birthday, I’ve set up a reminder in my iPhone. To avoid missing my in-laws’ exit, I now explicitly ask my wife to remind me when we’re getting close. (Since she doesn’t drive to my office as much as I do, she doesn’t suffer from the same deep behavioral groove.) And when I’m visiting my parents and need cash, I put my wallet back into a different pocket than usual after inserting the card in the ATM. When I reach the end of the routine, the strange sensation of an empty wallet-pocket cues me that something’s amiss and my conscious brain reengages.

Understanding how our brains make mistakes doesn’t mean we’ll never screw up again. But it should, hopefully, improve the odds that we don’t make the same mistakes too many times in a row.

Illustration by Gianpalo Pagni.