Brain Rules: science and practice

Inter­est­ed a good, non-tech­ni­cal, sum­ma­ry of the impli­ca­tions of recent brain sci­ence in Brain Rules-John Medinaour dai­ly lives? Biol­o­gist John Med­i­na offers that in his arti­cle below (as part of our Author Speaks Series) and in his new book: Brain Rules: 12 Prin­ci­ples for Sur­viv­ing and Thriv­ing at Work, Home, and School. Enjoy!

(Note: John will be in the Bay Area on April 8 and 9th, speak­ing at Google and San Jose Rotary).


Brain Rules

– By John Medina

Go ahead and mul­ti­ply the num­ber 8,388,628 x 2 in your head. Can you do it in a few sec­onds? There is a young man who can dou­ble that num­ber 24 times in the space of a few sec­onds. He gets it right every time. There is a boy who can tell you the exact time of day at any moment, even in his sleep. There is a girl who can cor­rect­ly deter­mine the exact dimen­sions of an object 20 feet away. There is a child who at age 6 drew such life­like and pow­er­ful pic­tures, she got her own show at a gallery on Madi­son Avenue. Yet none of these chil­dren could be taught to tie their shoes. Indeed, none of them have an IQ greater than 50.

The brain is an amaz­ing thing.

Your brain may not be near­ly so odd, but it is no less extra­or­di­nary. Eas­i­ly the most sophis­ti­cat­ed infor­ma­tion-trans­fer sys­tem on Earth, your brain is ful­ly capa­ble of tak­ing lit­tle black squig­gles from a piece of bleached wood and deriv­ing mean­ing from them. To accom­plish this mir­a­cle, your brain sends jolts of elec­tric­i­ty crack­ling through hun­dreds of miles of wires com­posed of brain cells so small that thou­sands of them could fit into the peri­od at the end of this sen­tence. You accom­plish all of this in less time than it takes you to blink. Indeed, you have just done it. What’s equal­ly incred­i­ble, giv­en our inti­mate asso­ci­a­tion with it, is this: Most of us have no idea how our brain works.

This has strange con­se­quences. We try to talk on our cell phones and dri­ve at the same time, even though it is lit­er­al­ly impos­si­ble for our brains to mul­ti­task when it comes to pay­ing atten­tion. We have cre­at­ed high-stress office envi­ron­ments, even though a stressed brain is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less pro­duc­tive. Our schools are designed so that most real learn­ing has to occur at home. This would be fun­ny, if it weren’t so harmful.

Blame it on the fact that brain sci­en­tists rarely have a con­ver­sa­tion with teach­ers and busi­ness pro­fes­sion­als, edu­ca­tion majors and accoun­tants, super­in­ten­dents and CEOs. Unless you have the Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science sit­ting on your cof­fee table, you’re out of the loop. My book is meant to get you into the loop.

12 brain rules

My goal is to intro­duce you to 12 things we know about how the brain works. I call these Brain Rules. For each rule, I present the sci­ence and then offer ideas for inves­ti­gat­ing how the rule might apply to our dai­ly lives, espe­cial­ly at work and school. The brain is com­plex, and I am tak­ing only sliv­ers of infor­ma­tion from each sub­ject non-com­pre­hen­sive but accessible.

A sam­pling of the ideas you’ll encounter:

-For starters, we are not used to sit­ting at a desk for eight hours a day. From an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive, our brains devel­oped while work­ing out, walk­ing as many as 12 miles a day. The brain still craves the expe­ri­ence, espe­cial­ly in seden­tary pop­u­la­tions like our own. That’s why exer­cise boosts brain pow­er (Brain Rule #2) in such pop­u­la­tions. Exer­cis­ers out­per­form couch pota­toes in long-term mem­o­ry, rea­son­ing, atten­tion, prob­lem-solv­ing tasks, and more. I am con­vinced that inte­grat­ing exer­cise into our eight hours at work or school would only be normal.

- As you no doubt have noticed if you’ve ever sat through a typ­i­cal Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tion, peo­ple don’t pay atten­tion to bor­ing things (Brain Rule #4). You’ve got sec­onds to grab some­one’s atten­tion, and only 10 min­utes to keep it. At 9 min­utes and 59 sec­onds, some­thing must be done quick­ly’ some­thing emo­tion­al and rel­e­vant. Also, the brain needs a break. That’s why I use sto­ries in this book to make many of my points.

- Ever feel tired around 3 o’clock in the after­noon? That’s because your brain real­ly wants to take a nap. You might be more pro­duc­tive if you did: In one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots per­for­mance by 34 per­cent. Even so, the brain isn’t rest­ing while it sleeps. It is sur­pris­ing­ly active. And whether you get enough rest affects your men­tal agili­ty the next day. Sleep well, think well (Brain Rule #7).

- We’ll meet a man who can read two pages at the same time, one with each eye, and remem­ber every­thing in the pages for­ev­er. Most of us do more for­get­ting than remem­ber­ing, of course, and that’s why we must repeat to remem­ber (Brain Rule #5). When you under­stand the brain’s rules for mem­o­ry, you’ll see why I want to destroy the notion of homework.

- We’ll find out why the ter­ri­ble twos only look like active rebel­lion but are actu­al­ly a child’s pow­er­ful urge to explore. Babies may not have a lot of knowl­edge about the world, but they know a whole lot about how to get it. We are all nat­ur­al explor­ers (Brain Rule #12), and this nev­er leaves us, despite the arti­fi­cial envi­ron­ments we’ve built for ourselves.

Back to the jungle

What we know about the brain comes from biol­o­gists who study brain tis­sues, exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists who study behav­ior, and cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tists who study how the first relates to the sec­ond. Evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists have got­ten into the act as well. Though we know pre­cious lit­tle about how the brain works, our evo­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry tells us this: The brain appears to be designed to solve prob­lems relat­ed to sur­viv­ing in an unsta­ble out­door envi­ron­ment, and to do so in near­ly con­stant motion. I call this the brain’s per­for­mance envelope.

If you want­ed to cre­ate an edu­ca­tion envi­ron­ment that was direct­ly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you prob­a­bly would design some­thing like a class­room. If you want­ed to cre­ate a busi­ness envi­ron­ment that was direct­ly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you prob­a­bly would design some­thing like a cubi­cle. And if you want­ed to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over.

In many ways, start­ing over is what the book is all about.

John Medina-Brain RulesJohn Med­i­na, author of  “Brain Rules,” is a devel­op­men­tal mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist and research con­sul­tant. He is an affil­i­ate pro­fes­sor of Bio­engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton School of Med­i­cine. He is also the direc­tor of the Brain Cen­ter for Applied Learn­ing Research at Seat­tle Pacif­ic Uni­ver­si­ty. His arti­cle on exer­cise and the brain was select­ed by the Har­vard Busi­ness Review (Feb 2008) as one of its “Break­through Ideas for 2008.”


  1. Timray on March 30, 2008 at 4:10

    and alas every auto­di­dact knows this.…

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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