These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 general session with V.S. Ramachandran, Professor and Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition from UC San Diego, on The Unique Human Brain: Clues from Neurology.” This session worked for me and was a pleasantly surprising choice by the conference planning committee. Normally, you get a keynote speaker who is one of the following:

  • A celebrity who can tell a good story and make the audience laugh
  • A technologist who can give a good history lesson and make the audience proud
  • A politician who can sound the alarm and make the audience anxious

Ramachandran did none of these things, although he did have some funny bits (e.g., “How can Bush believe in intelligent design when he is a walking contradiction of the theory?”). Instead, he spent a good 45 minutes describing several of his research programs in cognitive neuroscience. This was a brilliant professor delivering a solid lecture that would have been right at home in an undergraduate psychology course.

The content was relevant in a subtle, but powerful way. If you consider the number of neurons in the brain, the number of connections those neurons make with one another, and the fact that each connection can be one of several types (e.g., exitatory, inhibitory), the number of possible brain states may exceed the number of particles in the known universe. How would you use a model of this complex system to explain prosopagnosia or face blindness, where the afflicted can’t recognize other people, even family members, by looking at their faces, yet have no difficulty recognizing their voices? How would you explain why amputees feel cramps or movement in their “phantom” limbs? Long story short, Ramachandran and his colleagues have made great progress in answering these questions using the scientific method, reliable measurement tools, and a good working model of the human brain. They have developed elegant explanations and have tested their hypotheses. Armed with those findings, they have devised practical solutions (e.g., therapies for amputees that can help relieve phantom limb pain). Basically, they have been good researchers.

Are we good researchers? I think we are good engineers, but we could improve as researchers by:

  • Using theoretical models. We tend to apply the “whatever works” principle without identifying the formal models or theories that can explain our results. We often use the term “model” not in the theoretical sense, but to describe techniques or solutions, many of which we discovered either by accident or guided by personal expectations about what should work (i.e., naive theories).
  • Better understanding the principles of measurement. Our understanding of measurement and research methods needs improvement. This will lead to better measurement tools and better tests of our formal theories. Anyone can create a questionnaire, but is it a valid and reliable indicator of the variable of interest? How do you know?

I also appreciated the fact that Professor Ramachandran delivered a traditional lecture, albeit with PowerPoint slides, to a very large classroom of IT professionals and he did not pull any punches. He used words like “sagittal” and “gyrus.” As I looked around the room I recognized the classic “Crap! I didn’t read the chapter.” and “Is this going to be on the test?” looks on some faces. On others, I saw the, “Is he kidding me with this? What does this have to do with anything?” look. We could all benefit from auditing some classes on our campuses taught by master teachers. Ramachandran reminded us who’s in charge and why faculty deserve our respect.