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Buzzer Beater

The New Yorker—February 16, 2011

“Jeopardy!” is supposed to be a knowledge game—pop culture’s I.Q. test, it has been called—but it’s really a test of reflexes, especially when the players are first rate.

Nine times out of ten, all three contestants think they know the answer well enough to push their buzzers. But timing is everything. You need to push it at the moment Alex Trebek finishes the last syllable of the clue and someone else activates small white lights on the playing board. If you buzz in before the lights go on, you’re locked out for a fifth of a second. But if you hesitate, you’re beaten.


What neuroscientists call the P300 response sounds a lot like a military experiment described by Dr. Scott Wolfe, an orthopedic surgeon:

They’ll condition a soldier to recognize a certain tone. When he hears that tone, he will have to activate a buzzer. A series of tones is played, but it’s just that one tone he has to react to. By monitoring his brain waves, they’ve actually shown that the recognition takes about 300 milliseconds.

Dr. Wolfe, who is the chief of hand and upper extremity service at Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York, says it takes another hundred milliseconds for the soldier or Ken Jennings to press the buzzer. “A computer is basically going to beat a human every time,” he said. “In a human, the brain needs to activate a whole series of synapses to make our muscles move and our hand then press the buzzer. It’s not just a single reflex.”

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Scott Wolfe, MD
Upper Extremity Surgeon
Dr. Wolfe is an internationally recognized Hand, Wrist and Peripheral Nerve Surgeon
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