It’s not uncommon to see students stay awake for insanely long periods of time, especially when out partying and enjoying themselves. Especially for medical students, this ability is essential, and I often like to think of my ridiculously late bed-times (normal people would regard the hour as waking up time) as good practice for the inevitable sleep-deprived nature of being a doctor. I would have liked to think that my surprising alertness when doing an on-call this week (yes I am being keen!) had something to do with my early university lifestyles. It is most likely to do with the fact that humans actually have a phenomenal capacity to achieve great things, especially with the correct motivation.
Marathon runners often complain about hitting ‘the wall’, authors often complain about ‘writer’s block’, and students just generally complain, although mainly about revision and exams. I remember that when cramming for exams, I thought my brain had reached a saturation point whereby literally no more information be squeezed in and at any moment, other bits of information would precipitate out. However, the wall would be broken, the mind unblocked and somehow, the information would continue to dissolve into the brain. This realisation often comes at the end of what you are trying to do and on reflection you can’t really believe, or remember how you had managed to achieve that. My particular wonder, which will make me sound extremely keen, is that at the start of my first year, I do what every medical student does and I buy a massive door-stopper of a text book called Gray’s Anatomy. Interestingly, one of my friends thought that the anatomy book was named AFTER the TV show Grey’s Anatomy and not the other way around! Anyway come to the end of second year and I have realised that I have read every page of the door-stopper and managed to retain most of that information as well. If you had told me that was going to happen when I first buy the book then I would have literally LOL’d! It’s amazing how long-term accumulation of knowledge does wonders for your study.
Surely all of that knowledge would disappear after a few years? Well it may do, but again to my surprise, I have managed to hold on to most of that knowledge, for now (yes some of the finer details did in fact escape, in front of my consultant, when he grilled me on the origin and path of the oculomotor nerve). It all comes back to the capacity of humans: we are actually surprisingly good at remembering things, especially repetitive things. Revision for the notoriously difficult second year medicine exams had me reciting the entire pharmocology course essential drugs list day in and day out, much like practicing a musical piece over and over again to the annoyance of your housemates, parents, neighbours, neighbours’ dogs, the garden shrubbery etc. That amount of repetitive drone does wonders for exams, but to my surprise it also did wonders half a year later when you encounter the same drugs list, but in a patient’s charts and your mind start reeling off the receptors, pharmacology and side effects of the drug. Again I will draw the musical comparison, where pieces that I’ve played 3 or 4 years ago are still fresh. Half a year is a relatively short period of time so it remains to be seen what a long hiatus does to the memory since in my finals exams in 3 years time, they may ask questions relating to my first year knowledge. Although if music is anything to go by, then it is a lot more reassuring as my friend Jennie proudly exclaimed that she can still ‘nail’ an virtuosic flute piece after 2 years of negligence.
From the ability to stay up late to the amazing functions of memory, the boundaries of what is humanly possible is constantly being stretched. If you can still learn some bits of information whilst extremely tired and hungover, just imagine how much better you can become if you were in a half-decent state. When applied in the correct manner, humans have a phenomenal ability to achieve great things and even make an impact on the world. Indeed Margaret Mead once said to ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’