COMMENTARY

Switching On the Doctor 'Circuit'

Allan M. Block, MD

September 15, 2022

A long time ago, as a fourth-year medical student, I did a neurology rotation at a large academic center.

One of the attendings was talking to me about reading, and how, once learned, it became innate: a function that, like breathing, couldn't be turned off.

Dr Allan Block

He was right, as is obvious to anyone. Driving down the road, walking past a newsstand, even opening a fridge covered with magnets from various other medical businesses ... it's impossible NOT to process the letters into words and words into meanings, even if just for a second. Advertisers and headline-writers figured this out long ago. The key is to make those few words something that grabs our attention and interest, so we'll either want to read more or retain it.

So too is being a doctor. Once that switch is on, you can't flip it off. We all come to this field with varying degrees of curiosity and analytical ability, and once those are refined by experience they don't shut down.

Recently Queen Elizabeth II died. In reading the news stories, without intending to, I found my mind trying to pick out details about her medical condition, formulate a differential ... after all these years of being in medicine it's second nature to do that.

Of course, it's none of my business, and I greatly respect personal privacy. But the point is there. At some point, like reading, we can't turn off the doctor circuit (for lack of a better term). We do it all the time, analyzing gait patterns and arm swings as people go by. Noticing facial asymmetries, tremors, speech patterns. It may be turned down a few notches from when we're in the office or hospital, but it's still there.

It becomes second nature, a part of who we are.

It's not just doctors. Architects casually notice building details that no one else would. Software engineers off-handedly see program features (good and bad) that the rest of us wouldn't. Teachers and editors pick up on grammatical errors even when they're not trying to.

None of these (aside from basic observation) are things that brains originally started out to do. But through training and experience we've adapted them to do this. We never stop observing, collecting data, and processing it, in ways peculiar to our backgrounds.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty remarkable.

Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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