Brain rules by John Medina is a book about the modern scientific understanding of how the brain learns and performs, and what we might do to improve it. The basic take away is: we, as humans, have set up our schools and places of business in an way that’s not in alignment with how the brain operates. If we can recognize this, and learn from brain science; we can make great strides in learning, productivity, and happiness.
I learned quite a bit from this book, and have made a few modifications to my daily routines as a result. Much of the information on how the brain works seems to be common sense, yet we don’t tend to act that way. For example: sleep and exercise are important. Even though it’s common sense, I felt a little boost of urgency once I realized how much sleep and exercise affect my brain.
The author lays out 12 brain rules that are simplifications of what scientists have learned about the brain.
Exercise Boosts Brain Power
The first brain rule is that exercise boost brain power. I think everyone intuitively knows this, but you might be surprised to know how much exercise affects your brain. For example, according to the author, active people have half the risk of Alzheimer’s as sedentary people.
The origin of the brain-body connection goes back to the days when humans used to walk up to 12 miles a day just to meet the basic needs of food and shelter. Our bodies were built for movement and our brains evolved along with our bodies.
Compare that to the modern classroom or office where we sit for eight hours a day, and then go home to sit on the couch for another four. It’s no wonder why we’re not only overweight, but we can’t think as sharply as we would like.
I believe we’ve entered a new period of awareness of our activity levels. The introduction of fitness trackers and mobile devices that update our daily movements has made us more aware of how much we move. I was introduced to the FitBit several years ago, and since then I have a different way of thinking about my daily exercise needs.
Before, I used to think of exercise as something one does at a gym. If I didn’t have time to go to the gym, I wouldn’t bother exercising. I didn’t consider that simply moving around a little bit could make such a difference.
Now, I try to move around, even if it’s just walking. In fact, I’m pacing around my house as I dictate this blog post. I’ve noticed more and more people talking about activity and walking. I’ve also seen more news reports and studies about the benefits of walking. I’m encouraged that we’re moving into a period where we are not only more fit as a people, but we think more clearly.
The Human Brain Evolved, Too.
The second rule is about the evolution of the brain. Our brains became much bigger than other species, which helped us to solve complicated problems and reach the top of the food chain. Apparently, this started when climate change forced our ancestors out of the trees and into the Savannah to look for new food sources. We had to be creative and think critically to survive.
The author explains that the ability to guess other people’s thoughts desires, and motivations is what makes us different from other animals. This allows us to work together as a team, giving us an advantage over other species.
We also have the ability of dual representation. This is the ability to assign meaning to symbols, for example: letters, words, and sentences. This allowed us to create language, arts, and math.
Sleep Well, Think Well.
The next brain rule is about sleep and how important it is for the brain to function properly. Again, it’s something everyone knows, but you might be surprised at how important it actually is.
In modern society, people are sleeping less and less. We’re connected to stimulating devices at all hours of the day, up until the point where we go to bed. This further complicates the problem and makes it harder to sleep.
The author talks about what happens when we sleep. Until recently, we knew very little about it.
Ironically, the brain does not actually rest when we sleep. It actually remains very active by going through cycles of REM sleep.
Some scientists think that sleep is a way for our brain to categorize and file away information that we learned during the day. In fact, studies cited in the book indicate that people perform better when they “sleep on it”.
I was interested in the topic of napping. Everyone is familiar with the two o’clock, after lunch crash. Well it’s actually a real thing. Once again, everyone knows it, but no one really does much about it.
The author cites studies that show how naps can boost brain performance. Apparently, for most people, the zone between 1:30 PM and 3:30 PM is what he calls “nap zone”. This is where the brain’s waking and sleeping cycles cross, resulting in a strong desire for a nap.
I often take an after-lunch nap, for somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes. I find that even just a short little slumber can significantly boost my ability to finish the day strong.
Recently, since I have learned more about the importance of sleep, I have put an increased emphasis on it in my own life. In my 20s I would often stay up late or even pull all-nighters in my work. Now, I force myself to go to bed even if it means missing a deadline.
Another practice that I have implemented is turning off backlit screens starting around 10 PM, and picking up an old-fashioned book instead. I’ve found this practice to improve my sleep.
Stressed Brains Don’t Learn the Same way
The part of the book about stress was somewhat alarming. It turns out that stress in large quantities is extremely destructive to the brain. Mild stress actually improves brain performance; but starting at moderate stress, brain performance begins to diminish, and chronic stress all but the cripples the brain.
I found it fascinating to read about the effect of stress in households with children. The author cites a study where marital satisfaction droped by 70% by the time a baby is one year old. This corresponded with a period where the couple’s hostility toward each other began to increase.
Every Brain is Wired Differently
The next rule is that every brain is wired differently. In fact, every new experience you have creates a new pathway in your brain. The result is that no two people have the exact same wiring.
The part that I found most interesting in this chapter was what’s called “the mapping problem”. Scientists have discovered that different parts of your visual field are processed in different parts of your brain. For example: straight lines are processed in one area and curved lines are in another.
“The mapping problem” means that scientist don’t quite understand how the brain reassembles all of these separate parts into the seamless experience that we all have.
We Don’t Pay Attention to Boring Things
According to the author, getting the attention of someone’s brain can be a challenge. We don’t pay attention to boring things. In fact, he points to studies that show our attention span is only about 10 minutes in the classroom. Because of this, the author has changed his teaching style to include some sort of attention grabbing stimulus every 10 minutes in his lectures.
The section on multitasking stuck out to me. The author claims there’s no such thing as multitasking. What we believe to be multitasking is actually the brain being interrupted and switching to a new task. Studies have shown that you make three times more errors on a task where you are interrupted.
Furthermore, it takes four times as long to complete tasks after interruptions. I find that I’m much more productive when I can shut myself off from the outside world and concentrate on the task at hand.
Another interesting tidbit was what the author called “the perfect commercial.” He’s referring to the famous Apple commercial in 1984. Here’s what he wrote on his website:
A perfect commercial: The brain pays a great deal of attention to emotional events. And it remembers them. Any “emotionally competent stimulus” causes the amygdala to tag the information with dopamine, like a Post-It note saying “Remember this!” Some ECS’s are universal: sex, threat, pattern matching. This 1984 Apple commercial was so effective because it used all three.
Stimulate More of the Senses
The rule on sensory integration will be of interest to marketers. It turns out that using multiple senses such as hearing, sight, etc., increases your chance of somebody getting your message.
Vision Trumps All Other Senses.
According to the author, vision is the most important of our senses when it comes to cognition. The saying, “a picture is worth 1000 words,” is on to something.
The book claims that you get three times better recall for visual information than auditory. Furthermore, you get six times better recall for information that is simultaneously auditory and visual.
Male and Female Brains are Different
The rule on gender differences was fascinating as well. As you may recall from biology class, women have two X chromosomes and men have one X and one Y. This fact has profound impact on how we think. For example, a man’s X chromosome always comes from his mother, while a woman’s comes from both.
According to the author, “Areas of the brain are bigger or smaller depending on gender. Whether this translates to behavior, we don’t really know. For example, it’s common to say women are more emotional than men. But men have a larger amygdala, heavily involved in emotion.”
Some brain disorders divide along gender lines. Women have far higher incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia than men, for example. Men are more often afflicted by addiction and attention-deficit disorder.”
We are Powerful and Natural Explorers
In the brain rule about exploration, the author suggests that humans are natural scientists, forming hypotheses about our world and executing experiments to either confirm or deny our hypotheses. For example, can you remember the last time you lost your keys? You probably formed a hypothesis about where they were; and then proceeded to perform an “experiment” to test this hypothesis.
I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who’s curious about how the brain works and what they might do to improve brain performance. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, and then going to the website for supplementary material.