[Very minor Game of Thrones spoilers]
From one of my LW comments, discussing how hard it is to learn biochemistry:
I’m having the same problem with molecular biology right now, and I agree with the track you’re taking. The issue seems to be the large amount of structure totally devoid of any semantic cues. For example, a typical textbook paragraph might read:
JS-154 is one of five metabolic products of netamine; however, the enzyme that produces it is unknown. It is manufactured in cells in the far rostral region of of the cerebrum, but after binding with a leukocynoid it takes a role in maintaining the blood-brain barrier – in particular guiding the movements of lipid molecules.
I find I can read paragraphs like this five or six times, write them on flashcards, enter them into Anki, and my brain still refuses to understand or remember them after weeks of trying.
On the other hand, my brain easily remembers vastly more complicated structures when they’re loaded with human-accessible meaning. For example, just by casually reading the Game of Thrones series, I know an extremely intricate web of genealogies, alliances, locations, journeys, battlesites, et cetera. Byte for byte, an average Game of Thrones reader/viewer probably has as much Game of Thrones information as a neuroscience Ph.D has molecular biology information, but getting the neuroscience info is still a thousand times harder.
Which is interesting, because it seems like it should be possible exploit isomorphisms between the two areas. For example, the hideous unmemorizable paragraph above is structurally identical to (very minor spoilers) :
Jon Snow is one of five children of Ned Stark; however, his mother is unknown. He was born in a castle in the far northern regions of Westeros, but after binding with a white wolf companion he took a role in maintaining the Wall – in particular serving as mentor to his obese friend Samwell.
This makes me wonder if it would be possible to produce a story as enjoyable as Game of Thrones which was actually isomorphic to the most important pathways in molecular biology. So that you could pick up a moderately engaging fantasy book – it wouldn’t have to be perfect – read through it in a day or two, and then it ends with “By the way, guess what, you now know everything ever discovered about carbohydrate metabolism”. And then there’s a little glossary in the back with translations about as complicated as “Jon Snow = JS-154″ or “the Wall = the blood-brain barrier”. I don’t think this could replace a traditional textbook, but it could sure as heck supplement it.
This started a sobering line of thinking regarding the social structure of my medical school class. I can remember the names, appearances, voices, place of origin, specialties, and personalities of about a hundred of my classmates and faculty. It seems entirely possible that (again, byte for byte) I left medical school with more social data than medical data, and the social data seems less susceptible to decay from disuse. I forget which heart murmurs sound like what all the time, but the chance that I will forget my friend Leo was Japanese, liked Frisbee, and was dating my friend Angela seem next to nil, even though I haven’t talked to him in a year.
The more I think about this sort of thing, the more I feel like I should be finding a way to exploit this kind of idea. Trouble is the isomorphism just isn’t good enough. If I continue the conceit in the example of representing metabolic pathways by families, the story risks turning into a geneology, which is famously difficult to remember in itself (who but the most devout remember all the begats in the Bible?) And metabolism has a bad habit of looping in on itself, such that any attempt to historicize it is going to sputter into bizarre time travel arcs where people become their own grandfathers.
Still, if history has taught us anything, it’s that people are really good at ridiculous constrained writing tasks. Maybe I could abandon the idea of there being “a” mapping, and just do something vaguely suggestive, so that glucose could be a character in one part and an artifact in another, so long as the story helped give a general sense of the glucose pathway.
Of course, the real benefits would have to wait for the blockbuster movie adaptation. I’m quite serious here. I thought about this when Ozy mentioned how ze doesn’t watch Game of Thrones because then the actors will forever imprint themselves on zir mind and replace zir own imaginary view of the characters. If we had actors, people would remember what each character looked like, which would allow another level of encoding. All blonde people are lipids. All brunettes are amino acids. Everyone with long hair has a methyl group. Taller people are larger molecules. Et cetera.
Maybe there’s another field of study more amenable to this kind of treatment than biology. But as far as solutions in search of problems go, this is one of my favorites.