Even a Neurologist’s Frontal Lobes Take a Back Seat Sometimes

  • Who: Allan M. Block, MD
  • Profession: Physician MD
  • Specialty: Oncology
  • Current Practices at: Solo Neurology Practice
  • Location: Scottsdale
  • State: New York

The frontal lobes are pretty important. They help us plan and concentrate, and they keep us from being impulsive and distracted. They help to override those pesky emotions that can interfere with objective thought.

In Vulcans, I imagine, the frontal lobes are huge.

We put a lot of faith into them in this field. We have to stay calm and try to reason during stressful times, often with people who aren’t quite as clear headed at that moment.

I think we all like to believe we’re creatures of our intellects: able to think dispassionately about the current case in front of us, to make decisions based on established facts and data. And, generally, most of us do a good job.

But sometimes it doesn’t work that way.

One day in late July, I was working my way through the usual afternoon patients at the office, checking test results, making decisions – the everyday stuff. After 20 years, this has become routine.

At 1:48, while talking to a patient, an email crossed my screen. As usual, I glanced at it to make sure it wasn’t a patient emergency … nope. It was mine.

Because of a rapidly moving forest fire in southern California, my daughter’s summer camp was being evacuated. She was safe, but they were being moved to a high school that was being used as an evacuation center in Banning, Calif. We were asked to come get her as soon as safely possible.

And, just like that, my frontal lobes got moved to the back seat.

Granted, I didn’t panic. I didn’t cancel the patients I had waiting. I completed my current appointment, then took a few extra minutes to look at the schedule with my secretary to see where we could move the next day’s patients so I could drive to California in the morning. Then I went on with my day.

I still had three more patients left. Although none of them said anything, I’m sure they noticed I wasn’t mentally all there. I probably seemed distracted, checking my screen a few more times than I should have to see whether there were further updates. I don’t think I made any bad decisions about treatment, but I certainly wasn’t at the top of my game. A few days later, after things had settled down, I reread my notes from the day to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

It’s a surprising reminder of how powerful the older, nonrational parts of our brains are. Although they didn’t take over, they certainly affected my ability to focus on the task at hand. There’s a reason those areas exist, too, even if we keep them hidden in our daily lives.