Nurse Keith: The Nurse’s Brain

Nurse Keith: The Nurse’s Brain

If you gave some thought to the differences and similarities between the brain of a nurse and that of a mechanic, what do you think you’d perceive? If you compared the nursing brain to the pilot brain, how would the two measure up? As humans, we’re all “wired” the same way physiologically, but our various forms of intelligence and skill can certainly set us apart from one another as well.

My nurse’s brain examined

When I consider my own brain as an example of the brain of a nurse, I see several aspects that elucidate my “nurseness.” First, I was led into nursing from other endeavors that all had one thing in common: helping and serving others. Compassion for the suffering of other people underscored the type of work that I pursued throughout most of my prior careers, and nursing served as the ultimate goal of securing a profession that allowed me to earn a living while being of service. This is part of my “wiring”.

While math and science were anathema to me in my adolescence and early adulthood (I was focused on being an artist at the time), once I decided to attend nursing school, all bets were off and I leapt into science with gusto. To this day, that empirical, scientific part of my brain is active, curious, and always seeking new information; my brain essentially rewired itself to love science.

For me, emotional intelligence is essential to life as a nurse; compassion, communication, empathy, and collaboration are areas of my nursing brain that are constantly fired up. I imagine what a functional MRI (fMRI) might reveal.

The nurse’s brain

The brain of the nurse can be activated by humor, irony, data, physical labor, emotional connection, or any other human experience that informs a nurse’s day.

The nurse researcher’s brain may be less oriented towards relationships, preferring the solitude of a library or office; the school nurse’s brain is wired to relate to children and their needs; a flight nurse’s brain demonstrates laser focus on efficient response to trauma and the need to save a life.

The clinical nurse’s brain is by nature plastic and multifaceted. A nurse must be scientific in his or her approach to a patient’s physiological problems, all the while maintaining access to compassion, empathy, and the ability to engage the relational aspects of the brain.

Meanwhile, the nurse entrepreneur engages even more qualities that some nurses would find no use for. Business plans and return on investment are not taught in nursing school, yet the nurse business owner must also embody these more unfamiliar aspects of the nurse’s brain.

The mechanic’s brain assessed

A mechanic I know is one of the nicest people in town; he demonstrates complete dedication to service, and treats everyone he encounters with respect and kindness. His business gives thousands of dollars to local charities; additionally, every customer can bring a bag of non-perishable groceries to the shop once a year and receive a bumper-to-bumper inspection in exchange. In 2016, they delivered more than 2,000 pounds of food to the local food bank.

Meanwhile, this gentleman’s brain is completely wired to assess, diagnose, and repair vehicles; I walk into the garage with a car-related complaint, and I can almost see his brain moving through a set of differential diagnoses; since he’s very communicative by nature, he brings me along for the ride by drawing diagrams of what he’s considering as the possible culprit of the problem at hand.

This person’s business persona and brain are focused on scientific, evidence-based assessment (quite similar to a nurse) coupled with solid communication skills, kindness, and customer service (again quite similar to a nurse).

The brain’s the thing

We are all wired both similarly and differently. When in nursing school, various parts of your brain will be taxed and stretched, at times almost torturously so. You will cram all manner of facts and data into your brain, from rote memorization of the cranial nerves to aspects of human personality and communication.

As your nursing career develops and grows, some brain centers will be lit on fire, and others will recede to ember. If you start a business unrelated to patient care, certain parts of your brain will come to the fore as your assessment skills are pushed aside for the time being. You’re still a nurse; you’re just exercising other parts of your brain – and yourself.

Your nurse’s brain has much in common with that of other nurses; it’s also supremely unique. Allow your nurse’s brain to flourish in all its idiosyncratic glory, and it will never lead you astray.

Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, consultant, author, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers. Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. He can be found at

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