The 50 Bits Problem

Jan 17, 2013
99.9995% of what the brain does is automatic and happens under the radar. But the healthcare industry acts as if patient attention is limitless.

The human brain is a marvelous instrument, capable of processing information at a rate of about 10 million to 12 million bits per second. That’s about the same bandwidth as the original Ethernet cable.

However, the more sobering statistic is that the conscious part of the brain – the part you’d think of as your mind – processes only 50 bits per second. That means the vast majority of what the brain does – 99.9995% – is automatic and happens under the radar.

Looking at it this way, human attention is an incredibly scarce resource.

Wired for Inattention and Inertia

What all this means is that people are wired, for the most part, for inattention and inertia. We point our 50 bits at things that are either really pressing or really pleasurable. For everything else, we switch on our autopilot.

Because of this reality, there can be a big gap between what we would prefer to do and what we ultimately end up doing. We put off decisions that might not seem like a big deal at the time but over the long haul are critical to our health. For example, we may forget to take our medications, or we may procrastinate on getting the prescription refilled. 

Disconnect in the Healthcare Industry

Unfortunately, most of the healthcare system acts as though people are wired for limitless amounts of attention and decision-making. Patients are inundated with more and more information about ways to improve their health.

The problem, however, is that many of these patients don’t need more education.

What they need is a healthcare system that understands humans’ natural tendency to procrastinate and forget. A system that defaults toward better decisions. And a system capable of grabbing a patient’s 50 bits infrequently, but effectively.

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