Are you still blaming your faulty stars?

April 7, 2017

Try to avoid seeing a pattern when some days just don't go your way.

I might have made reference in a previous blog to my less-than-fulfilling experience of having to memorize a bunch of Shakespearean quotes in high school English classes. Lesson evidently not learned. In titling today’s blog, I half-guessed the line about fault not being in our stars, but ourselves was from Hamlet, not Julius Caesar.

Even the meaning behind the quotation slips from the mind all too readily. And no, I’m not just talking about indulging oneself with some astrology. It seems equally silly to imagine one’s luck (or lack thereof) tied to remote heavenly bodies as it does to, say, specific numbers, times of year, articles of clothing, or just a particular type of day.

One might imagine smart, highly-educated individuals in a science-based field, such as medicine, would not fall victim to such superstition. One might, then, be disappointed. I think my favorite example of this was from back during residency training, when a house staffer enduring one or more busy nights on-call might be described as being under a “black cloud,” or even termed the Black Cloud him/herself.

Another one, which I first saw while working in hospitals but continue to encounter to this very week, is the notion that certain types of pathology, notably appendicitis, turn up in 3s. I’ve found it an interesting wrinkle in terms of who is counting; staff in a particular ER counting three cases in a short interval is a bit of a different beast than a teleradiologist like myself, simultaneously receiving cases from hospitals across the country.

In the occasionally-superstitious individual’s defense, our brains are wired to make us draw conclusions, even if they bear closer resemblance to “delusions of reference” (there’s my background in psych talking, again). Our minds like to make patterns out of things, sometimes taking significant liberties with filling in blanks in order to do so.

I’m personally most vexed, in a love-to-hate kind of way, by the phenomenon of sensing early in a morning as to what overall type of day it’s going to be. At its simplest, “good” or “bad.”

It doesn’t take much to get the conceptual ball rolling: A couple of QA zingers in your inbox when you first get to work, spilling your morning coffee before you’ve had even half of it, hearing a pleasing item in the news, or getting a message that someone will be able to help you with your holiday-coverage-swapping request. I’ve even seen residual of the previous night’s dreaming have an impact.

The basic sense of it, even without a scientific education, is that there is indeed a lowest-common-denominator amongst these disparate events: The individual experiencing them and his subjective perception of it all. Not his zodiac sign, not the wearing of a lucky baseball cap, not that it’s Friday the 13th.

Still, that pesky theory-forming, pattern-recognizing brain keeps doing its thing, and indeed, it’s not an unpleasant matter when you feel your stars are in alignment and everything’s going your way. When you’re feeling more like the Black Cloud, however, snapping out of it might just help keep you from making it a self-fulfilling prophecy in the next few hours.