The Memory Hack That Got Me Through Med School--And Inspired A Startup

Lance Armstrong--that’s who I have to thank for my renewed brainpower. But it’s not what you think--no performance-enhancing drugs here. In fact, I’ve never even met the guy. But his story taught me something valuable about how human memory works, and how we can manipulate it with technology.

As a medical student with a background in neuroscience, I’m constantly searching for brain hacks that will help me learn and retain information more efficiently. These range from well-established techniques such as spaced repetition to, well, less evidence-based schemes, such as strapping an EEG to my forehead and “listening” to 6-hours worth of pathology lectures…while sleeping. (I didn’t need the red lines representing beta wave activity--that is, wakefulness--to figure out that instead of gaining knowledge I was simply losing sleep.)

However, last year I stumbled upon a largely unknown--yet research-supported--memory hack that actually worked. And it involved an unusual suspect: Lance Armstrong.

It’s not what you think: He didn’t give me a performance-enhancing drug for med school. Nor, for that matter, have I ever met the guy. What I have done is rely on his account of his battle with cancer to recall high-yield information about chemotherapy.

Before I delve deeper, let’s step back and discuss an interesting cognitive experiment known as the Baker-baker paradox, which revealed the impact of associations on memory. In brief, researchers randomized people into two groups and showed both a picture of a man.

Individuals in group one were told that the person’s last name was “Baker,” whereas those in group two were told that the person was a baker. When these people were shown the image and prompted to recall the word later, those in the latter category (occupation) were significantly more likely to remember it than those in the former (name). Same image, same word, and a randomized group of people--so why the difference?

The answer: Associations are powerful memory hooks. When you are told someone is a baker you may begin thinking about the bakery nearby and your favorite baked goods, which then provides more mental links back to the original image-word memory. It’s like trying to catch a whale (I’m told): The bigger the schema of associations, the bigger the net.

So what does this have to do with Lance Armstrong and med school? Medical students have to learn the indications, mechanisms, and side effects of hundreds of drugs; one of which is the widely used anti-cancer drug bleomycin--a drug which has the particularly nasty side effect of scarring lung tissue, a condition known as pulmonary fibrosis. When a patient is prescribed the drug, their lung function should be monitored; failing to do so may lead to irreparable harm to the patient, and an easy lawsuit against the doctor.

Of course, no doctor can possibly memorize all the side effects to all drugs. (Sure, we now have technologies to look these up in real-time, but as I wrote recently in The Health Care Blog, it’s important to have a strong working knowledge base given that we have a decreasing amount of time to spend with each patient.) While I have forgotten and will need to relearn dozens of other drug-side effect combinations, I have forever internalized bleomycin because I applied the associative memory principle demonstrated in Baker-baker. Enter Lance.

In 1996 Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, and given less than a 40 percent chance of survival. Despite this, he actually declined the front-line therapy involving bleomycin because (as an increasingly prominent professional cyclist) he did not want scarred lungs.

While he would unfortunately go on to destroy his cycling career anyway, the bold decision he made--and the rationale behind it--has inspired millions and helped medical students like me anchor important medical information in our brains. Now, whenever I think about bleomycin my mind immediately jumps to Lance Armstrong not wanting to jeopardize his athletic career, and thus the side effect of pulmonary fibrosis. I can bet that if I ever prescribe the drug to a patient I’ll be sure to closely monitor their lung function.

I’ve found story-based memory hooks to work so well in my medical career that I actually started a side project called Osmosis--as in “learning by osmosis.” It’s a web-based platform that, among other things, automatically recommends associations based on what you’re learning. The stronger the association the better, which is why accounts from celebrities like Lance work so well. These associations may also come from art, music, politics, and scientific literature, among other areas.

We’re focusing on medicine because it’s our area of domain expertise and nowhere are the stakes higher in terms of being able to learn and retain information. And if it works for medical students who are drinking from the proverbial fire hose, it will likely work for others who also want to break out of the inefficient learn-forget cycles that we’ve become unnecessarily accustomed to.

You can sign up for our private beta at Osmosis.org--let us know if it helps you, too. And if you have memory hacks of your own which we might be able to build in, tweet @ShivGaglani and let me know.

Shiv Gaglani is co-founder of the medical education technology company, Osmosis. An editor of Medgadget, he is currently an MD/MBA candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Harvard Business School.

[Image: Flickr user K Sandberg]