Mind to Market

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Human Brain as a Hard Drive

I have always been somewhat put off by fields of endeavor that require large amounts of rote memorization. This is why I chose physics over biology as an undergraduate; I assumed that with physics I could simply derive everything from first principles while with biology, due to the lack of knowledge regarding mechanistic relations in biological systems, was more a matter of memorizing large amounts of names and reactions. No doubt I was also somewhat unsure of my powers of memory; just memorizing correct spellings could give me fits. But I still believe that the human mind is much better suited as an analysis tool rather than a data storage device.

While working with clinicians I am often amazed at how much information they have memorized. In the medical television series "ER" actors posing as doctors frequently rattle off diseases, symptoms, diagnoses and possible treatments but we all know they just memorized these minutes before the cameras started rolling. In reality many doctors do have this type of encyclopedic memory. Dr. John Hutton of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center told me that he had memorized about 400 diseases that he could name, diagnose and treat. Based on that knowledge, he could then infer on several times more diseases. Although this volume of knowledge is a tremendous advantage in clinical care, WebMD lists over 4,000 diseases and conditions and the numbers are constantly increasing. We have reached a point where the biomedical knowledge base has overwhelmed the memory capacity of the human brain.

Although it would be easy enough to develop a system to provide rapid information retrieval at the point-of-care, what we really need is rapid knowledge retrieval; information that has already gone through preliminary processing and can deliver answers, not just pages out of medical journals. This is the leading edge of clinical informatics; a fledging field with some daunting challenges.

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