In his latest blog Professor Harden discusses The Barmaid's Brain and How to be more interesting, the undervalued advantage of working in the office, and The professor who publishes a paper every two days.
The barmaid’s brain and how to be more interesting
During a tedious Zoom meeting my eyes wandered to the bookshelf behind and just above my computer monitor. Two books attracted my attention. Curious, as I couldn’t remember buying or reading them, I inspected them later in the day.
The Barmaid’s Brain is a collection of essays exploring the weird and wonderful world of scientific studies and some of the little-known quirks of human behaviour. One essay is about the barmaid’s brain. This reported a test of the abilities of waitresses to remember drink orders. A miniature cocktail lounge model was prepared with dolls dressed to look like customers and voices recorded on tape made the orders. Waitresses were tested on their ability to remember the drink orders and who ordered what. Six waitresses out of a total of 40 remembered and placed correctly all 33 drinks ordered. The faster the waitresses work, the better their memory was. It is interesting to compare this study with the often-stated concept that most of us can manage to hold only about seven “chunks” of information in our short-term memory.
At a restaurant for dinner I am concerned when the waiter does not write down what I order. Perhaps in light of this experiment, in the future I should not worry, but I am not sure!
In one of Edward De Bono’s many books he describes how to be more interesting. People have certain areas where they can excel but as he describes even ordinary individuals can be incredibly interesting. There is no need to be exceptionally clever, to have done extraordinary things, or to have deep knowledge of an unusual subject. The key, he argues, lies in developing a rich, lively mind full of possibilities and speculation about everything we encounter. To illustrate the key principles, De Bono assembled over 70 challenging open-ended exercises along with sample responses. For example, “How would you link the words headache and lake?”, “What is interesting about a frog?”, “What do you feel about taxing the overweight?”, “What would be the benefit of no television on Thursdays?”.
A third book I noted was Five Minute Mysteries, 37 challenging cases of murder and mayhem for you to solve. The author was Ken Waver, a Professor of Special Education at the University of Toronto.
I continue to think about the selection of students to be admitted to study medicine and the move away from a reliance only on measures of academic achievement. In a recent blog I noted Diane Wayne’s argument that in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic she had reconsidered the attributes required in a doctor, including greater emphasis being placed on resilience, grit, tolerance of uncertainty, and response to unexpected events. She argued that if these are important we should be looking at evidence for these in students to be admitted. Although this may be controversial, perhaps in light of David Powis’ thinking, if attributes such as these are completely absent we should reconsider whether the individual should be admitted to medical studies.
Reading through the 37 challenges I wondered whether they could be used as part of a selection test as they do assess observing and analysing evidence, looking for clues, logical thinking, and problem-solving. Some MMIs as reported in the Dundee example in our book the Definitive Guide to the OSCE have moved in this direction.
The undervalued advantage of working in the office
Working from home has become almost the new norm in the COVID-19 pandemic. This has obvious advantages. The disadvantages, however, are being ignored. Writing in the Sunday Times, Matthew Syed described how in the more successful companies employees meet and share experiences informally, for example over coffee. Such informal exchange of information and views can play a pivotal role in innovation. He described how Steve Wozniak came up with the idea for the AppleMac computer in informal discussions over a drink of beer. The trivial chats on the stairs and along corridors may turn out to be anything but trivial. These may provide the flow of ideas, which cannot be replicated in a zoom meeting. Without such informal discussions, it is not just productivity that suffers but a victim is innovation which is far more serious.
The professor who publishes a paper every two days
The Times Higher Education (Oct 2020) describes how Mark Griffiths, a professor of behavioural addiction at Nottingham Trent University, has so far published 161 articles in 2020. This may be to understate his output as Google Scholar attributes at least 1200 publications to his name. The question is how he produces this many papers. One of the reasons given is a large number of research collaborators. He insists, however, that he has made an intellectual collaboration in every paper published and reports that he spends five or six hours on the first draft of each paper. When asked how it was possible to publish so much he replied that he worked 50-60 hours a week. I am not sure, even with the input of others, how this productivity is possible.