Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Remember what you read - Anthropology, Neuropsychology and Google Reader

I was struggling to identify a topic for a Grand Rounds I was giving to the Education Institute at the large health care institution where I work.  I had planned to discuss the use of a Personal Learning Network based on Google Reader (including sharing of items from journal feeds amongst members of the PLN).

Since this was an audience of health care professionals, I thought that using this tool to stay current with medical literature would resonate well with them.  Then driving to work one day I heard on NPR the story of how a study published in Science showed how we cannot focus on more than two tasks simultaneously.  I looked up the study and came across another one that discussed how the discovery of a 40,000 year old statue led to a theory of how the development of the prefrontal cortex and the working memory (previously called short term memory) gave the homo sapiens an extraordinary advantage over others and led to mankind becoming the dominant species.  Around the same time I found this fabulous animation by IBM about the "Internet of things" which talks about how we are being flooded by data and we need to create a mechanism for making sense of this data so we can use it.

This was really exciting reading and I ended up using the current accepted theory on how we learn and remember, how the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus play a key role in working memory and long term memory respectively as an introduction to the talk on how we can stay updated with medical literature and avoid getting drowned.

Sounds like a complex talk right?  Well this is how my talk flowed:
  • How does memory work?  
    • Sensory Memory - stored for less than1 min, disappears unless your attention is drawn to it; e.g. the car on the freeway that is going faster than the others. 
    • Working Memory - 
      • Activated when we pay attention to sensory input
      • We compare what we perceive to what we already know
      • Process occurs in prefrontal cortex
      • Story of the lion figurine and how the homo sapiens became dominant species
      • Image of the skull as the frontal bones "bulged" forward as we evolved to accommodate the growing prefrontal brain. 
    • Long term Memory
      • Hippocampus plays a key role
      • Each portion of the memory of an event is stored in the corresponding part of the brain and integrated by the Hippocampus
      • Thus the memory of a concert could consist of:
        • Sound of the music - stored in temporal cortex
        • The visual of the conductor and the orchestra and the hall - stored in occipital cortex etc.
      • When we remember the concert, the hippocampus pulls these together into what is called the episodic memory.
      • If we go to many concerts, we make some "rules" about what a concert is e.g. the conductor waves his baton around, has his back to the audience, etc... these rules become what is called semantic memory.
      • The process of creating long term memories is called learning
      • Things that help in learning are attention, motivation, encoding...
      • If we keep needing the same information multiple times, it can become so entrenched that it can be retrieved without the hippocampus.
      • Retrieving memory is easier if you are in the same environment as when it was stored - e.g. using your own text book with its notes and highlighting.
  • We are drowning in data:
    • Keeping up with medical literature is very difficult
      • too much new information
      • presented in too many different places
      • failure of filtering - user does not have sufficient control over what she/he wants to see
    • Ideally there should be a user controlled stream of data 
      • The user decides when to review this stream - remember that the brain can handle only 2 tasks well => we should set aside dedicated time for this review
      • The user should have a method for encoding and classifying this data at time of review - these are factors that help in learning (creating long term semantic memory)
      • The user should have tools for retrieving this data (searching) in same environment (this facilitates data retrieval)
  • Segue to Google Reader
    • Create Feeds from 
      • journals
      • customized pubmed searches
      • literature reviews (ACP Journal Club +)
    • Set aside time to review the articles
      • Star, like etc to annotate them
      • Tag with discipline/key words
      • Share with personal learning network with comments
      • Send by e-mail 
      • Send to Facebook/Twitter
      • These activities will help in learning 
    • Has excellent search (Google) for retrieval of previously read articles
      • Search by tag/star/keywords etc...
      • Search using smartphone
      • Same environment as when storing/encoding information facilitates retrieval
  • Next steps
    • Training of clinicians
    • Making it easier by developing OPML bundles of feeds
    • Training on Zotero as a tool to encode, annotate and store most useful subset of articles.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing your insights. I agree that using Google Reader - or others - can facilitate orderly memory work, leading to useful application, and eventually, wisdom (the highest tier of the video's pyramid). Thanks again.

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