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Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and
Thriving at Work, Home, and School
By John Medina, 2014, Pear Press, Seattle,
WA, USA. Updated and expanded edition. ISBN-13: 978-0983263371 (last viewed
price: US$9.15 on Amazon.com, softcover)
Rated approximately 4.5 stars on Amazon. Ranked #6791 in Books, and #'s 4,
11, and 20 in various "cognitive" and "neuroscience" categories.
From the jacket: "John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and
research consultant. He is an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the
University of Washington School of Medicine. He was the founding director of
two brain research institutes."
This is an entertaining and remarkably informative journey about the
(mostly) human brain. While Dr. Medina occasionally dips into brain physiology
("The amygdala is responsible for the creation of emotions and the
memories they generate."), most of the discussion is about how researchers
think the brain works. The discussion guides the reader toward effective
methods for self-improvement, parenting, and teaching.
Our Savanna History
As early humanoids came out of the trees:
- Our ancestors evolved to walk upright (better to see above the tall
grasses). Bipedal walking conserved energy that could now be redirected
toward enlarging the brain.
- Our brain is about 2% of body weight yet consumes 20% of our energy.
- About 40,000 years ago, we developed symbolic reasoning (evidenced by
painting and sculpture).
- There were brutish weather changes, and cognitive development enabled
learning, making inferences, and making predictions. [Some of this sounds
like machine learning--a current hot topic.]
- We were accustomed to walking about 12 miles a day. Humans still learn
and think better when there is lots of movement in our day. Medina suggests
that we perform some of our work and meetings while walking (treadmills
will do). Children will learn better if their school days include
substantial time for aerobic and strength exercises.
- To survive, we needed to constantly surveil the environment. Something
would get our attention: Is it something I can eat or might it eat me? Is
it something I can mate with or does it want to mate with me? Is it
something I have encountered before?
Every Brain is Different
I was surprised at the brain variations. "Left" and "right" brain
operations, for example, are not nearly as defined as commonly believed. Memory
storage is widely distributed and only partially localized in brain sectors.
Children's brains develop is as diversely as they appear physically.
The "terrible two's" and the "terrible teens": At about age two and during
the teen years, the neurons in a brain experience a large increase in the
number of connections formed. These are afterward pruned to typical adult
Memories are volatiles and subject to corruption. Brains do not rest during
sleep. They appear to replay activities, inputs, and emotions perhaps hundreds
of times during sleep; this repetition is key to learning.
There is a continuum of early- and late- people, "morning people" vs. "late
people." Teenagers temporarily turn into "owls," and trying to teach them in
the early day hours is problematic. Perhaps people should be grouped by
"chronotypes" (sleep schedules) into distinct work and learning schedules.
I remain puzzled at how some rare brains can keep precise track of time,
precisely estimate dimensions, do complex arithmetic, and remember everything
they have ever read. Neural connections, to me, seem incapable of "photographic
Teaching and Learning
Medina's key beliefs about learning include:
- Physically fit and well-rested children and adults learn and perform
better. Exercise improves the brain's vascular network. A mid-afternoon nap
boosts performance perhaps better than any other investment. NASA found
that pilots typically boosted their performance about 34% after a 26-minute
- Long-term learning--what we aspire to--is best achieved by introducing
new information gradually, having repetition in timed intervals, and
practicing recall. 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."
- Medina suggests that school days be divided into 25-minute topic modules,
with each alternating topic repeated three times during the day. Inserted
mid-morning would be 20-30 minutes of aerobics, and mid-afternoon would
include 20-30 minutes of strength training. The class day and year would be
longer; however, there would be little need for homework (and more time for
sleep). Every third or fourth day would be reserved to review what was
covered in the prior several days.
- Children's brains are as different as their physical bodies. Various
regions of the brain develop at different rates among different people.
Many kids do not read at the level at what is expected for their age.
Medina says this deserves the teacher's individual attention, and that
requires smaller classes. Grade structures based upon age should be
- Multi-tasking does not work. It reduces productivity and increases
mistakes. Someone can monitor several inputs at once. However, it is
impossible to focus on multiple tasks.
- People typically forget most of what they learned in a class after a few
hours, and 90% after a month.
- For college courses, Medina has been chunking the 50-minute periods into
five 10-minute segments. Explain the lecture plan at the start; revisit the
plan after each segment to help the student organize the concepts. People
pay attention only to something of interest; ten minutes is the typical
student's attention span. He devotes each segment to a singular topic and
finishes with a story or experience with an emotional content. Emotions get
attention. Unless the professor "earns" a student's interest from the prior
10-minutes, he likely has lost the student for the rest of the hour.
- Vision trumps all senses. Pictures and words work best. With PowerPoint,
that should be very few words. It is the experience that counts most.
This book highly interesting. I was hoping for more
information applicable to artificial intelligence. However, Medina explains a
lot about us, especially about learning and teaching.
—John Schuyler, November 2015
Copyright © 2015 by John R. Schuyler. All
rights reserved. Permission to copy with reproduction of this notice.