The Lure of the Unusual

karenFor most of the twentieth century, Ripley’s Believe It or Not was a popular regular newspaper and radio feature. Today Ripley’s has moved to the web, still luring eyes to the screen with a variety of blogs, cartoons, and videos highlighting phenomena that are decidedly weird. What is it that fascinates us about the unusual? And can we employ that fascination in the service of learning?

My experience with my students suggests that we can. Again and again, a brave student has raised her hand to ask,  “But Dr. D, why would we ever need to know this?” In an attempt to answer that question, I began featuring disease processes related to our current class topics on the daily features board in my classroom. Initially I tried to choose conditions that I know the students will likely encounter frequently in their careers. I naively thought that “important” and widespread problems would capture the students’ attention and imagination. However, I soon realized that the more unusual pathologies were much more interesting to the students, leading to more discussion and, ultimately, a greater extension and consolidation of their growing knowledge.zebra-with-horses1

There’s an admonition that every medical student learns early on: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” Good advice, but most of us remember the “zebras” among our patients better than any of the horses, and we fill our journals with “zebras” as well. Neuroscience has found ample evidence that our brains find pleasure in things that are novel. (For an entertaining and lucid summary of this work, check out “Novelty and the Brain: Why New Things Make Us Feel So Good” by Belle Beth Cooper, writing for lifehacker.)

Last week’s class included posted information and a short discussion of progeria, an exceedingly rare disease (about 350 cases worldwide) that causes children to age at a markedly accelerated rate. My students had just studied the nucleus of the cell and had also just learned how genes direct protein synthesis, so they were able to grasp the cause of the disease at the cellular level. We watched this video of a TED talk by 17-year-old Sam Berns, who became the face of the disease prior to his death last year.

In a sad and ironic twist, just after this class discussion, the web and airwaves brought sad news of the death of Hayley Okines, a famous British teen who also had progeria. Several students emailed me to tell me of her death, and several others mentioned it in class. They all noted that they were glad that they understood more about how the disease affects children with progeria. While saddened about the loss of Sam and Hayley, the students realized that they really are making progress and are learning things that are important. If you sense that your students are coasting, you might want to try rustling a zebra.

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