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Best Books to Buy: "Brain Rules" by John Medina - GoLeanSixSigma.com

This month’s book is Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina.

About the Book:
"Brain Rules" by John Medina - GoLeanSixSigma.com

“My goal is to introduce you to 12 things we know about how the brain works. For each rule, I present the science, introduce you to the researchers behind it, and then offer ideas for how the rule might apply to our daily lives, especially at work and school.”

Can discussing the amygdala be funny?

Yes — funny, accessible and useful for problem solvers everywhere. This fascinating book begins by touring your lizard brain, your mammalian brain and the rest of the brain regions along with how they developed. Some give us kinship with Gila monsters while the prefrontal cortex makes us uniquely human (phew!).

John Medina provides evolutionary science, reports the findings of peer-reviewed, duplicated experiments and ends each chapter with ways to leverage our brain’s hard-wiring to our advantage.

The following summaries highlight some useful takeaways from the rules covered in each chapter. Prepare to expand your mind and work your brain!

Survival — Brain Rule #1: The human brain evolved too.

The introductory chapter provides the groundwork for the 12 Rules. It may leave you reminiscing about high-school biology classes and it’s a great precursor to the principles presented. It showcases the brain as designed to solve problems.

Problem solving revolved around survival and procreation which meant constantly adapting to our environment. It also developed to help us “understand one another’s intentions and motivations” which makes us good at collaborating to solve problems. That’s good news for everyone!

Exercise — Brain Rule #2: Exercise boosts brain power.

Couch Potato alert: “One of the greatest predictors of successful aging, they found, was the absence or presence of a sedentary lifestyle.”

We were originally built to walk twelve miles a day and the advantage of moving is the oxygen it provides to the brain. That may seem obvious and mundane but he puts a finer point on it: we can live without water for about a month, we can live without food for about a week but our brain “cannot go without oxygen for more than five minutes without risking serious and permanent damage.”

Take a breath.

Not only will moving make you live longer, it makes you smarter. “Fluid intelligence, the type that requires improvisational problem-solving skills, was particularly hurt” by not exercising. The good news is that you can do as little as 30 minutes, 2 or 3 time a week and you’ll cut your risk of dementia in half and your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 60%. Sold.

Not only will moving make you live longer, it makes you smarter.

Sleep — Brain Rule #3: Sleep well, think well.

This reminds me of a well-meaning grandmother lecturing her granddaughter on the advantages of being married. It’s as if we had control over both sides of the equation. There are dozens of books, pharmaceuticals and whole centers dedicated to remedying sleep deprivation. He’s probably speaking to those who consciously burn the candle at both ends and choose to forgo the recommended 7-9 hours.

For those with any control over their slumbering hours, you are hereby warned that “sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge.” Sleep is also where your brain continues to process what you learned during the day. Sleep on it.

Sleep is also where your brain continues to process what you learned during the day.

Stress — Brain Rule #4: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.

This is a great chapter to forward to your boss and to spread amongst leadership in the business world. The “American Stress Institute estimates that American businesses lose $300 billion every year because of work-related stress.”

Given that stress impacts the bottom line, his recommendations of employer-sponsored child care and even marriage counseling sound cost-effective. Our minds and bodies aren’t built for the constant, long-term stress of modern life — more for the occasional run-in with saber-toothed tigers.

I would add the idea of engaging workers in continuous improvement efforts since “slight feelings of uncertainty may cause [employees] to deploy unique problem-solving strategies.” That’s a stress-reliever benefiting all involved!

Wiring — Brain Rule #5: Every brain is wired differently.

This chapter covers a lot of differences: what happens with 2-year-olds, male vs. female brains, and where we store information. What’s interesting is that “when you learn something, the wiring in your brain changes.” He covers the microbiology of what’s actually happening with neurotransmitters in detail. The takeaway is that we’re not truly hard-wired.

One of his recommendations, to take advantage of our differences, is for parents to look for schools “adopting the trend of a flipped classroom, where students review the lecture at home before class. Class time is instead spent on homework, and teachers give individual help as needed.” That’s a good idea for all learners, especially since it takes advantage of Rule #3 by allowing people to sleep and process what they learned in between lessons.

One of his recommendations, to take advantage of our differences, is for parents to look for schools “adopting the trend of a flipped classroom, where students review the lecture at home before class. Class time is instead spent on homework, and teachers give individual help as needed.”

Attention — Brain Rule #6: We don’t pay attention to boring things.

This seems like a no-brainer but he’s got remedies. It’s an equal-opportunity educational problem, “whether you are an eager preschooler or a bored-out-of-your-mind undergrad, better attention always equals better learner.” This is critical for teachers but also for those mentoring employees and providing on-the-job training.

One discovery is that, in the absence of the aforementioned saber-toothed tiger, in ten minutes we lose interest in listening to someone talk. That means it’s worth breaking up a lecture or training into 10-minute blocks separated by “hooks.”

In addition, the most common communication mistake is “relating too much information without enough time devoted to connecting the dots.” He recommends starting with big ideas before getting into details — provide the meaning first. That dovetails well with the ten-minute guideline. Less is more!

Memory — Brain Rule #7: Repeat to remember.

Repeat to remember. Although the discussion of Rule #6 provides hints as to why, people “forget what they learn in a class within 30 days.” The remedy is to “increase the lifespan of a memory by repeating the information in timed intervals.” And repetition can be augmented by taking advantage of how our memory works. “Information is remembered best when it is elaborate, meaningful and contextual.”

If you’re in a position to pass along information it helps if you ensure the listener understands the meaning of what you’re talking about. You can do that by using real-world examples.

If you’re in a position to pass along information it helps if you ensure the listener understands the meaning of what you’re talking about. You can do that by using real-world examples.

The memory chapter is alarming given the research proving how little we retain, how fragile our memories are and how long it can take (years) to permanently embed memories. In the author’s words, “all I can say is that memory is not fixed at the moment of learning and repetition provides the fixative.”

Sensory Integration — Brain Rule #8: Stimulate more of the senses.

This brings back memories of “Sensorama” — that multimodal, experiential theater concept from the 60’s that included “odor emitters.” Sense of smell is one of the most powerful memory aids. Even if bringing odors into the classroom is unrealistic, what makes a difference is addressing multiple senses. “Groups in multi-sensory environments always do better.”

One fascinating point (and ironic as a reader) is that due to how long it takes the brain to process words, “reading is a relatively slow way to put information into the brain.” What’s more effective than text, as you might guess, is pictures. It’s even better if they’re moving pictures.

Ultimately, if you add visuals, motion and narration into the mix, you get better learning and retention. Despite not having access to a Sensorama theater, it’s still easy to follow his guidelines to create infinitely better presentations and classroom material.

Ultimately, if you add visuals, motion and narration into the mix, you get better learning and retention.

Vision — Brain Rule #9: Vision trumps all other senses.

“Visual processing doesn’t just assist in the perception of our world. It dominates the perception of our world.” For those who never learned how vision works, it’s fascinating to discover how images get bent, flipped, processed and what you “see” is basically “your brain trying to give you a reasonable facsimile of what’s in front of you.” And it works hard to do that — “visual processing takes up about half of everything your brain does.”

That said, it’s no wonder we learn better with pictures. “If information is presented orally, people remember about 10 percent…That figure goes up to 65 percent if you add a picture.” We pay attention to pictures and we pay more attention if they’re moving (back to the threat of predators).

In sum, use pictures, video and animation, and less text. Less text and more pictures is how USA Today became the biggest newspaper in the country.

Music — Brain Rule #10: Study or listen to boost cognition.

This chapter is intriguing because scientists remain unclear as to why we evolved to respond to music as strongly as we do. But it’s worth discussing since it has a profoundly positive effect on the brain. The list of advantages people have who are trained musically will amaze most readers.

Musicians have bigger vocabularies, better non-verbal problem-solving skills, better working memory and they are better listeners. People who take music lessons exhibit more “prosocial” behaviors — “behavior done for the good of a group, or for the good of another individual.” Kids who take music lessons are more empathetic.“

Stroke victims have regained the ability to speak with music therapy and, of course, music can put you in a better mood.

Gender — Brain Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.

This rule involves revisiting the nature of X and Y chromosomes and how they give men and women different advantages and deficits. There’s a substantial publishing niche that helps us navigate these differences — Women are From Mars and Men are From Venus and Deborah Tannen’s seminal work, You Just Don’t Understand to name two — but it remains a touchy subject.

He discusses separating boys and girls for grade-school math to avoid negative impacts due to their communication styles. On the flip side, he recommends pairing men and women on teams at work to capitalize on their combined abilities — women are, generally, better at absorbing the details of a situation and men are better at grasping the “gist.”

If you form unisex teams you get well-rounded groups.

Exploration — Brain Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

This is a satisfying chapter to end on. It turns out our brains are always capable of growth. “Some regions of the adult brain stay as malleable as a baby’s brain so we can grow new connections, strengthen existing connections and even create new neurons, allowing all of us to be lifelong learners.”

The trick is to encourage our natural sense of wonder.

“Problem solving was greatly favored” given the sabre-toothed-tiger issue, but it turns out that working to achieve “A”s in school — instead of trying to survive — has dampened some of our natural curiosity.

The antidotes include free time at work. 3M, Genentech and Google allow “employees to use 15 or 20 percent of their work week to go where their minds” want to go, resulting in products like Gmail and AdSense. In terms of education, the remedy is to learn by doing.

It turns out our brains are always capable of growth… The trick is to encourage our natural sense of wonder.

The Rules of the Game

You can put his rules to use as soon as you read them. The science is compelling and there aren’t many barriers to experimentation. If you are a leader, a teacher, a problem solver or you just present information to other people from time to time, there’s a treasure trove of tips here. Dr. John Medina has a gift for making brain science easy to grasp and fun to discover. Where was he when I was in school!?

About the Author:

Dr. John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist focused on the genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. He has a lifelong fascination with how the mind reacts to and organizes information. In addition to Brain Rules, he is the author of Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five. His latest book in the series is Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp.

Dr. Medina is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife and two boys.

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

  • Problem Solving
  • Learning
  • Presentation
  • Teaching
  • Memorization
  • Retention
  • Communication

Who Should Read Brain Rules?


Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at GoLeanSixSigma.com, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.