Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. 301 pp)

John Medina is a development 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.

In Pursuit of Learning 

Can we, as human beings, learn better? We go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, perhaps even graduate work without ever questioning if we are learning optimally. As a person who seeks to learn continuously and realizing I won’t remember every piece of information imparted to me in my lifetime, Brain Rules offers almost magical solutions to apply my learning better in work and life on the whole.

Separated into 12 easy-to-remember principles about optimal brain function, Brain Rules explains complex issues in simple, relatable, and applicable ways. Medina culls research all across the field of brain science and translates the research into easily digestible chapters. Since Brain Rules attempts to popularize scientific research, the book won’t be for everyone. In particular, I imagine those in scientific fields related to brain research will find Medina’s writing much too simplistic.

But for the common reader, Medina’s prose is perfect. He translates complex ideas into simple notions the everyday man and woman can apply.

While the research behind the 12 principles of Brain Rules is interesting, the most fascinating part of the book, for me, surrounded the potential ways in which businesses and educators can take these principles and use them within their contexts.

Exercise for the Brain 

For example, science reminds us of the critical importance of exercise. While most understand the importance of physical activity on bodily health, many don’t recognize the effect of exercise on brain function.

“Business leaders already know that if employees exercised regularly, it would reduce health-care costs… But exercise also could boost the collective brain power of an organization” (26-27).

I have already found this principle undeniably useful. Whenever I get stuck in the brainstorming phase of a project, a quick run typically launches my creativity to higher levels.

Illustrations for the Brain 

Consider the importance of association. How often have you been in a lecture or a business presentation where you sit in front of an hour-long, text-based Powerpoint presentation? Assuming you’ve encountered one of these occurrences, do you remember anything from it? If you’re anything like me, probably not.

“If you are a student, whether in business or education, the events that happen the first time you are exposed to a given information stream play a disproportionately greater role in your ability to accurately retrieve it at a later date. If you are trying to get information across to someone, your ability to create a compelling introduction may be the most important single factor in the later success of your mission” (116).

Whether in academia or the boardroom, the introductory hook to your information matters significantly. Whether a story, a metaphor, a picture, or a song, an audience needs a hook in order to ignite memory retention. To just state facts is a failure to understand the best ways for your audience to remember.

Sleep for the Brain 

Photo by Scott Akerman

Lastly, how often did you pull an all-nighter before a final exam? Did your last-second cramming help your grades? Brain research suggests a good night’s sleep helps your brain to retain information. Likewise, the mid-afternoon period when all of your employees are yawning is the least productive time during the day. Studies suggest a power nap contributes to productivity at a greater degree than powering through tiredness. Medina ponders,

“What if businesses and schools took seriously the existence of nap zones? No meetings or classes would ever be scheduled at the time when the process C and process S curves are flat-lined. No high-demand presentations and no critical exams would be assigned anywhere near the collision of these two curves” (167).

When you schedule exams or critical presentations/meetings for time periods where people function at their most tired state, you should expect sub-optimal results.

Simple Principles Worth Applying 

Now, all three of these examples might seem self-explanatory. I, for example, utilized the sleep-before-a-test strategy throughout my academic career without understanding the scientific benefits behind it.

But even if some of the Brain Rules principles seem self-explanatory, the bottom line remains static. Our society functions inefficiently. We make students sit in front of text-based presentations and then expect them to have a photographic memory for the test. We require our employees to sit in front of computer screens 8-10 hours a day and expect them to function at full brain capacity.

There’s room to reform business and education to become more efficient and productive. Brain Rules offers intriguing possibilities for creating a better system. If you are interested developing a better process for learning, you must read Brain Rules.

Verdict:4.5 out of 5

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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