Hitting a Nerve

Hunt, gather, and turn on the Keurig


I’m a creature of habit. I suspect most of us are.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

One can of Diet Coke on the drive to my office. Turn on the WiFi and air conditioning. Fire up the computer and unload my briefcase. Then do online refills, check the Astronomy Picture of the Day, look over the day’s schedule, turn on the Keurig, and make one cup of coffee. And so on.

I’m sure most of us have similar routines. Our brains are probably wired that way for survival, though the reasons aren’t the same anymore. Once it was get up, look outside the cave for predators, make sure the tribe is all accounted for, go to the stream for water, look for berries.

The fact is that automatic habits are critical for everything we do. Driving a car is really a series of repetitive tasks. Being able to put most of the ride on our brain’s autopilot allows us to move our attention to scanning the surroundings for changes, and to think about other items such as wonder what to do for dinner and if I remembered to turn off theWiFi and Keurig.

The practice of medicine is similar. Some things are internalized. Watching patients walk back to my office, looking at their hands as they fill out forms, hearing them introduce themselves, and other things that we subconsciously process as part of the exam before we’ve even officially begun the appointment. I quietly file such things away to be used later in the visit.

It certainly wasn’t always that way. In training we learn to filter out signal from noise, because the information available is huge. We all read tests of some sort. When I began reading EEGs, the images and lines were overwhelming, but with time and experience I became skilled at whittling down the mass of information into the things that really needed to be noted so I could turn pages faster (yes, youngsters, EEGs used to be on paper). Now, scanning the screen becomes a background habit, with the brain focusing more on things that stand out (or going back to thinking about what to do for dinner).

Over the millennia we’ve changed daily routines from something critical for survival to what we need for individual success in a chosen field. The brain in this way is the ultimate Swiss Army Knife – many tools available, but how we adapt and use them for our individual needs is variable.

Which is pretty impressive, actually. In the era of AI and computers, we each come with a (roughly) 2.5-petabyte hard drive that’s not only capable of storing all that information, but figuring out how to use it when we need to. The process is so smooth that we’re rarely aware of it. But what a marvel it is.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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