Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mentoring the Phantoms

 “Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full,” Far Side by Gary Larsen

Imagine the sauciness of Larsen’s student, microencephalic or not, he still had a huge capacity for storage in his brain. With billions of brain cells (Neurons) and over a thousand connections for each that relates to a neural network of trillion connections. It is certainly a large interconnected village to draw upon. So in all probability, Larsen’s student was up to nothing more then playing hookey, don’t you think?

After finishing the Grand Rounds one early afternoon, as I walked out of the lecture hall, a friend stopped me. “Hey now what the hell was that all about?” He asked poking into my ribs.
“You mean the mini-lecture?”
“Yeah. Whatever that was.”
“It was about the dynamics of a cancer cell.”
“Well you lost me at the word, “Okay” when you started.” He laughed.
“Yeah, man. Right over my head.” His hand swiped right over his thick black head of hair.
“Save it.” He said. “If I cant remember that then the others like me are in the same boat.”
I pondered on that thought a moment. The flush of embarrassment eked its way to the hair root and thence the warm burn of total embarrassment showed its colors.
“Sor...ry.” But he had moved ahead.

The brain is a rational entity, it tries to collate the most likely data from the neocortex library, passes it through the hippocampus and thence through the frontal lobe for processing. In dreams at night it takes certain liberties and the phantasmagorical interpretations are unleashed. However each transmission goes through a similar fate.

The mechanics of neural transmission between brain cells is easily understood via the chemical transitions that occur at the synaptic connection: Stimulating the neuron, leads to an electrical stimulus carried as an action potential via chemical reaction to the inter-neuronal connection or the synapse.  The stimulus leads to a release of a little sac that contains a neuro-transmitter eg. Glutamate, that attaches to a receptor on the other side of the gulf and if enough oomph is carried through another action potential in the form of an electrical impulse arises to continue downstream. The induced signal also carries with it the property of stimulating more proteins required in this interaction by calling the DNA resources into action.

In 2004, Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa and his team at Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT discovered how the neurons make the needed proteins.  "There is a direct activational signal from the synapse to the protein synthesis machinery," says Tonegawa.  An enzyme called mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) provides a molecular switch that turns on increased synthesis of a large number of proteins…"Very limited cues are sufficient to trigger a chain reaction that permits us to become aware of the rich and detailed content of a memory," Tonegawa says.  "This phenomenon is called pattern completion because it reflects cellular processes accompanying memory retrieval in which activation of a pattern of cellular connections harboring memory is completed by very limited input."

So with all these connections it is estimated that the human brain has 2.5 petabytes of storage capacity and in the real world analytics that equates to watching “General Hospital” continuously for 300 years. Yay, Soap Opera fans rejoice!

So now that we have the memory business in place, how do we push information in there for storage and retrieval?

Humans have the capacity to learn not by dogma but by metaphors and storifying concepts. Our memories can store 7-digit information for about 30-seconds and no more. If that is so, how do we remember data from long ago like the Pledge of Allegiance, “America the Beautiful” or for that matter Lincoln’s Gettysburg address or in the soft twilight of a rested evening, the words of Wordsworth pertaining to “Daffodils?”

There is a skeletal skein that connects and triggered by some faint recall, causes the firing of the neurons incorporated in that entire fabric to haul out the remnants of the long ago and the far away.

Donald Hebb was the first to register such a concept and not until brain probes and functional-MRIs and PET scans did we come to confirm and respect that opinion. For it has proven to be true.

So indeed, how do we mentor the blank slate?  Before you go into the vertiginous rush of repeatable, recited babble of “this is this and that is that” as Flounder would say, here are pieces of information that might help.

Tell a story. At the State of the Union Address, the Presidents have resorted to telling stories about individuals to magnify the concept for the humanity at large. The newspapers love that concept and pretty much every piece of doctrine, policy or mandate starts with the woes of an individual trapped within the vicissitudes of life and then when your eyes start tearing and the heart starts thumping and the hands start shaking into fine tremors, Bam! The beautifully articulated concept of what should be done to avoid such a calamity is proposed. Yeah, you say to yourself, man, he or she is right. The crafty logic wins every time.

So taking that premise and expanding it into a teaching moment, assume you want to teach about the value of a computation neuroscience or some such complexity. No maybe not. But say, you want the student to remember the concept of resident and extractable memory. Well, simply tell a story about this kid who became the smartest savant by placing all the data in an alphabetized manner in his iPad or computer. He would review the data everyday and in so doing he was energizing and fortifying his neural skeletal interconnections thus bringing to the fore, that data “at his fingertips.” No, seriously, think about it. When you Google for some information there is a historical timeline that is rendered in the background and clicking on the little magnifying glass, you can see what you have inquired about before. Well, so does Google. Your habits are their domain. Anyway the concept being the more you repeat the process the more strength that connection gets and thus the hierarchy of what is trending becomes a graph for Google. Similarly in a student telling a story and then retelling the same concept through a different perspective will make it click in his mind the basic tenet of the story and from there he or she will draw the representative concept that you intended to relay.

Rote memory lasts the same way, however it may be devoid of the logic of its basic tenet. However, rote memory if unused, the connections decay and the whole rote gets lost. Similarly unrepeated or unused memory falls into a similar trap. It is the “Aha!” moment that lasts, which is affixed to a story. The recall is an imagined event told in the form of a story. It is easier to remember a man sitting atop a steeple during a flood, or the imagery of the Challenger catastrophe or the “Kiss” on Armistice Day.

The old adage for lecturers remains true today, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them and then tell them what you told them.”

Storify, the concept, Repeat.

Now before we finish, let me invoke the Pareto Principle in mentoring. Remember there is a Learning pyramid about retention that suggests that we only remember 10% of what we hear. Being kind of heart and generous, I will increase that to 20%, but given the 7-digit issue that I mentioned earlier, I’ll suggest that 20% of a retained concept lasts in the recent memory storage unit for the requisite 30-seconds and thus given that half-life of recent memory the 20% of that will last another 30-seconds. Pushing this concept further, suggests that by that time the student will forget everything in about the first 10-minutes after the lecture is completed. And that is true. The moment you walk out of a lecture hall and start talking about other mundane or important things, the wisdom has leached out somewhere between the halls and the walkways. It sticks only if it (the information/knowledge) has an anchor. Anchoring information to a story keeps the premise alive.

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.~ Albert Einstein

Before you flush yourselves into this descent of deeply buried ideas, understand, data is learned better through concepts and concepts through stories, especially if they twang the strings of your heart. The exact and variable urchins of a pathology are easily viewed from the prism of a real patient. Pathology and Anatomy in medicine is better understood through the interconnected flow of physiology.

In science, knowing a bit about the history of how “this and that” came about helps understand the critical thinking behind it. It puts the face of a Marie Curie, her discovery of radon and her death from radiation poisoning, or Issac Newton and the apple falling on his head concept of gravitational force, or Albert Einstein streaking across the sky on a spaceship to understand limits of light and speed related time dilation in his mental map, or Semmelwies and the obstetrical deaths of thousands of mothers and children due to unwashed hands. Nothing is learned or remembered in isolation. Everything needs an anchor.

Energize those phantoms of the mind, give them shape and an anchor. Storify, Explain, then repeat.

The color of my face turns red, even now, from the memory of that encounter.

O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene. ~ Henry V ~ Shakespeare

1 comment:

  1. Once again you have taken the complex and helped me better grasp this information by providing images, stories and plain speak. Just like all of us, i'm busy but I've never failed to learn something new when I read your ink. i also try to make the time to read your blog because I respect you. One powerful example of our true character I believe can be seen in our Twitter interactions. You listen, give valuable insight and remain an authentic physician leader.