Ounce of Prevention

The Care and Keeping of Your Common-Sensometer

I think Voltaire was right on when he said “Common sense is not so common”. I see evidence of this often when I hear about new trauma cases at Sunnybrook. Every case is, in some way predictable and preventable, but there are just some cases where I shake my head and think “What were they thinking?”. It would probably be more apt to ask “Were they thinking?—or feeling?”, for that matter.

“Common sense” suggests an average degree of ability to act with soundness and prudence without the need of sophistication or special knowledge. We develop common sense by observing the world and listening to the messages our body and brain sends us. As highly evolved beings, human actions are based on the brain’s ability to incorporate cognitive abilities with instincts, experiences and emotions.

So why does it seem that there are so many people who act without using common sense? With teens there is a bit of a scientific explanation for the reason that they often act without good judgement or common sense. The teen brain is immature. The prefrontal cortex, where much of the judgement and reasoning originates, still has a few years before it is fully developed. That still wouldn’t explain adults who do the same.

Here is what I think happens: When a person (teen or adult) faces a situation where there is potential for harm, the body sends us clues. We experience primal visceral reactions to danger, like increasing heart rate, sweating, goosebumps and an internal instinct or voice. These are the common sense messages we get so we are aware of impending harm. When we ignore these messages enough times, we begin to “numb” these sensations. If we do this enough times we cause our internal “Common-Sensometer” to malfunction, and we no longer are alerted to those examples of potential harm. When the needle on the Common-Sensometer no longer registers in the red zone, we have ingnored our internal messages of sound judgement and good sense and put ourselves in a position of danger without “feeling” the signs. This is when problems can arise.

Take wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle as an example. Sound judgement and good sense would tell us that this would help prevent a brain injury—this is common knowledge in our culture. The first time we opt to leave off the helmet, our common sense will tell us that it is better to don the safety gear, but we don’t do it “just this once”. If the next few times we ride we continue to ignore the messages, we will learn to ignore the cues that alert us to possible dangers. In essence, we have damaged our Common-Sensometer and we now don’t “feel” the same potential for danger in this situation.

So what can we do to preserve our common sense and ultimately prevent injury?

· Pay attention to your apprehension. Those feelings and internal voices are telling you something and it is important that you tune in listen
· Take an extra 30 seconds to consider your actions. The immature teen brain needs at least that much time to compensate for the natural tendencies and any adult would benefit from doing the same.

Heeding these two simple suggestions might mean you wear your helmet even on that good hair day. It might mean waiting until you are parked to answer your phone. It might mean you buckle up your seatbelt. It might mean you take someone’s keys when you know you should. It will mean you have paid attention and listened to your personal Common-Sensometer and likely prevented an injury—yours or somebody else’s.

About the author


Injury Prevention Team