Human Behavior

February 2, 2021


I previously wrote a number of blogs about healthcare still available at I stopped writing blogs while focused on a biography of Richard S. Buker Jr., MD. After the book was published in July 2020, I planned to resume blogging but procrastinated. I start again with a subject that has puzzled me even though it is only peripherally related to healthcare and family medicine. I plan to resume writing about medical care after this is posted.

Human behavior

My wife and I watched a documentary titled “Bring Your Own Brigade” last week. The movie premiere was streamed to an outdoor theater in Tucson as part of the “virtual” 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Director Lucy Walker gathered heart-wrenching footage of devastating fires that erupted near Paradise and Malibu California in the summer of 2018. She then explored the many culprits that combined to fuel the flames and augment their impact. I was most affected by a Paradise city council meeting that was filmed one year after the deadly fire. The city government yielded to their citizens’ demands and refused to enact even inexpensive measures that could reduce the toll that fires will wreak in future years. I have been similarly dumbfounded by many who steadfastly refuse to accept and endorse expert recommendations regarding the viral pandemic.      

On January 20, 2021 I watched the presidential inauguration and a number of television programs that offered commentary on the event. I was struck by veteran reporter Chuck Todd who commented that our nation often seems to know what it needs in times of crisis. The idea of a collective national wisdom prompted me to think about natural observations when a number of individuals behave as if they share one mind.

Years ago while snorkeling off the British Virgin Islands I observed schools of hundreds of tiny fish that swam together so rapidly in such a tight formation it seemed they must have a shared nervous system. Lewis Thomas, in his remarkable book The Lives of a Cell first published in 1974, references colonies of ants that send out workers in long lines like neural axons to do jobs that are needed to improve the group’s survival. Similar behavior in birds was expanded upon by Jim Robbins in his 2017 book The Wonder of Birds. Robbins describes witnessing the “dance of the dunlins.” The flock of birds rose while afloat on still water and “went airborne, erupting as one into a great undulating cloud.” Robbins goes on to reference a number of scientists who are still trying to understand these so-called mumurations when a group of individuals perform seemingly impossible choreographed maneuvers. The term metacognition, defined as a collective mind that is much larger than the sum of its parts, is a theory postulated to explain the observations.

Perhaps like fish, birds and ants, humans possess some heretofore undiscovered abilities that might allow us to behave as one. I doubt we would be as closely knit and disciplined as our fellow creatures seem to be. But the idea offers me hope to think that we could somehow work more closely together and that our superior collective brain power would guide us.

Sign up for my Newsletter