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Brain Rules book report

Brain Rules

12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school


by John Medina, © 2008



From the beginning:


“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.”


Mr. Medina, you had me at hello.




The supporting research for all of Medina’s points must be published in a peer-reviewed journal and then successfully replicated. Said references can all be found at www.brainrules.net


And what do most of these studies show?


That if you want to create an educational environment that is directly OPPOSED to what the brain is good at doing, you would design something like a classroom. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear it down and start over. (pg 5)


Bring it.


I list for you here Medina’s BRAIN RULES as well as passages from the book to assist in clarification and understanding!




Exercise boosts brain power


Our fancy brains developed not while we were lounging, but while we were moving.  And we moved a lot.  Probably up to 12 miles each day.


“Physical activity is cognitive candy.” (pg 22)


Civilization has had a nasty side effect… it gave us more opportunities to sit on our butts.


Cutting off physical activity to do better on a test score is like trying to gain weight by starving yourself! (pg 25)


If you want to improve thinking skills, move.


Exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the protein that keeps neurons connecting.  (pg 28)


Aerobic exercise twice a week halves your risk of general dementia and cuts your risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%




The human brain evolved, too


There is an unbroken intellectual line between symbolic reasoning and the ability to create culture. (pg 33)


40,000 years ago something remarkable happened.  We appeared to have suddenly taken up painting and sculpture, creating fine art and jewelry.


It seems that our great achievements mostly had to do with a nasty change in the weather.   Yet this change was not too powerful, or too subtle.  The Goldilocks Effect.  The change was just right.  The weather change was enough to knock us out of our trees, but it wasn’t enough to kill us when we landed. (pg 36)


The net effect of this evolution is that we did not become stronger; we became smarter.


We fell out of the trees, we stood up, we walked and we learned to cooperate.


Theory of Mind = the ability to peer inside someone’s mental life and make predictions on how they will respond and react.


Our intellectual prowess, from language, to mathematics to art, may have come from the powerful need to predict our neighbor’s psychological state. (pg 45)




Every brain is wired differently



We are hard wired to be flexible!


Our brains are so sensitive to external inputs their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves. What you do and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like!


Learning results in physical changes in the brain, and these changes are unique to each individual. (pg 62)


No two brains are wired the same.  Not in structure.  Not in function.  Given this, why do we continue to expect children to all be learning in the same way, in the same style in the same fashion, and at the same time? (emphasis added)


Some Concerns (pg  67)


1)   the current educational system is founded on a series of expectations that certain learning goals should be achieved by a certain age.  Yet there is no reason to suspect that the brain pays attention to those expectations.  Students of the same age [sic] show a great deal of intellectual variability.

2)   These differences can profoundly influence classroom performance.  About 10% of students do not [sic] have brains sufficiently wired to read by the age at which we expect them to read.  Lockstep models simply based on age are guaranteed to create a counterproductive mismatch to brain biology.


Some Suggestions (pgs 66-69)


1)   Smaller class sizes

2)   Customized instruction

3)   And a three-pronged research effort between brain and education scientists that includes evaluating teachers (and teachers to-be!) for advanced Theory of Mind skills.


Our current education system ignores the fact that each human brain is individually wired.  We have a great number of ways of being intelligent, many of which don’t show up on an IQ test.




We don’t pay attention to boring things


Summary from page 94:


Emotions get our attention

**emotional arousal helps the brain learn


We grasp meaning before details

**we are better at seeing patterns and abstracting the meaning of an event than we are at recording detail


The brain cannot multi-task

**When we see people good at what we might call “multi-tasking”  we might be witnessing people with really good working memories who are capable of paying attention to several inputs one at a time.


The brain needs a break

**Audiences, students, board meeting attendees check out after 10 minutes, but you can grab them back through narratives or creating events rich in emotion.





Repeat to Remember


Summary from page 119


The brain has many types of memory systems.  Declarative memory is one of these systems.  These are memories of things you can “declare.” Example: “They sky is blue.”  This system has four stages of processing: encoding, storing, retrieving and forgetting.


Information coming into your brain is split into fragments that are sent to different regions of the cortex for storage.


Most of the events that predict whether something that has been learned will be remembered occur in the first few seconds of learning. The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.


You can improve your chances of remembering something if you reproduce the environment in which you first put it into your brain.




Remember to Repeat



Memory may not be fixed at the moment of learning, but repetition, doled out in specifically timed intervals, is the fixative.  (pg 130)


Great deal of research show that thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred [sic] enhances memory for that event.   (pg 131)


If you have only one week to study for a final, better to space out the studying, not attempt to cram it all in.


Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.  (pg 133)


So why do many classrooms do the exact opposite??


Summary from page 147:


Most memories disappear within minutes, but the ones that survive get stronger over time.


Long-term memories are formed in a 2-way conversation between the hippocampus and the cortex, until the hippocampus breaks the connection and the memory is fixed in the cortex = but this can take years!


Our brains only give us an approximate view of reality because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.


The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.




Sleep well, think well



If you ever get a chance to listen in on a brain while it’s owner is asleep, you will see that the brain is not asleep at all.  The brain displays more rhythmical activity during sleep than when it is wide-awake.


“Dreaming permits us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.”

–William Dement


The body possesses a series of internal clocks, and their automatic rhythm occurs as a result of the continuous conflict between 2 opposing forces:  Process C = The Circadian Arousal System (designed to do everything in its power to keep you awake) and Process S = The Homeostatic Sleep Drive (designed to do everything in its power to keep you asleep) (pg 155)


Process C and Process S are locked in a daily warfare of victory and surrender so predictable that you can graph it. Process S determines the duration and intensity of sleep and Process C determines the tendency and timing of the need to go to sleep. (pg 156)


Larks = 1 in 10 people. Early birds. Most alert around noon.

Owls =  2 in 10 people.  Most alert around 6 pm.


Larks and owls cover about 30% of the population.  The rest are called Hummingbirds.  Some are more larkish, some more owlish, some more in between.


So how much sleep do we need? The answer = we don’t know (pg 158)


What we do know though is that there is a universal need to nap. And it’s not just because you ate a big lunch.


Some scientists suggest that a long sleep at night and a short nap in the midday represents human sleep behavior at its most natural. (pg 159)


Sleep has been shown to enhance tasks that involve visual texture discrimination, motor adaptations and motor sequencing. Sleep loss = mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking in about all of the ways you can measure thinking.  It also impairs:


  • Attention
  • Executive function
  • Immediate memory
  • Working memory
  • Mood
  • Quantitative skills
  • Logical reasoning
  • General math knowledge


It affects manual dexterity, fine motor control and gross motor movements.


Sleep is intimately involved in learning.


Medina wonders what schools (And offices!) might look like if we took these sleep facts seriously!



  1. Match “type” schedules (Larks, Owls, Hummingbirds) with work and school schedules.
  2. Promote naps.
  3. Sleep on it. (propose a question, sleep on it, answer it next day).



Stressed brains don’t learn the same way



Stress Science 101:   When you get stressed your body responds.   The hypothalamus in your brain (pea sized, right in the middle of your head) sends a signal to your adrenal glands (on top of kidneys).  The adrenal glands dump buckets of adrenaline into your system. This is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.


Cortisol comes next. Released in small doses, it wipes out most unpleasant aspects of stress and returns us to normal.


The issue is that our stress response system was shaped to solve problems that lasted for SECONDS… we were out on the savannah we saw a saber-tooth tiger! Release adrenaline and RUN! Get to safe spot.  Release cortisol. Calm down.


These days our stress is not measured in seconds by interactions with mountain lions, but by days, weeks and sometimes months of hectic work lives, screaming toddlers and money problems. (pg 176)


And when moderate amounts of hormones build up to large amounts, or when moderate amounts hang around too long, they become quite harmful.


Stress that is too severe or too prolonged harms learning.  Stressed people:

  1. Don’t do math real well
  2. Don’t process language efficiently
  3. Have poorer memories (long and short term)
  4. Don’t adapt old pieces of information into to new scenarios as well as non-stressed folks
  5. Can’t concentrate


(pg 178)


Specifically stress hurts declarative memory and executive function. The skills needed to excel in school


Under chronic stress, adrenaline creates scars in your blood vessels that can cause a heart attack or stroke, and cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling your ability to learn and remember. (pg 195)


One of the greatest predictors of performance in school turns out to be the emotional stability of the home. (pg 183)  Kids of all ages who watch parents fight constantly have higher stress hormones in their urine. (pg 183) The presence of overt conflict – not divorce –predicted grade failure. (pg 185)




Stimulate more of the senses at the same time


Summary from page 218


We absorb information about an event through our sense, translate it into electrical signals (some for sight, some for sound, etc); disperse those signals to separate parts of the brain, then reconstruct what happened, eventually perceiving the event as a whole.


The brain seems to rely partly on past experience in deciding how to combine these signals, so two people can perceive the same event very differently.


Our senses evolved to work together – vision influencing hearing, for example – which means that we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once.


Smells have an unusual power to bring back memories, maybe because smell signals bypass the thalamus and head straight to their destinations, which include that supervisor of emotions known as the amygdala.




Vision trumps all other senses



We do not see with our eyes, we see with our brains. (pg 223)


Medina relayed an interesting story where professional wine tasters were given white wine that had been colored red with an odorless, tasteless red dye.  Researchers wanted to know if their delicate palates could detect the trick, or if their noses would be fooled. The verdict? They were fooled! Every single wine professional used “red wine” language to describe the wine they were drinking. The visual input (seeing red) trumped their other highly trained senses. (pg 224)


We are so visually driven that when we read, most of us are trying to visualize what the words are trying to tell us. (pg 235)


“Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap”

-George Bernard Shaw




Teachers should learn why pictures grab attention.


Teachers should use computer animation.


It was interesting to read that simple 2-D animation is quite sufficient.  Studies have shown that if the drawings are too complex or too lifelike, they can distract from the transfer of information.


Communicate with pictures more than words


Toss your power point presentations


Remember the terrible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible power of images.  Then, burn your current power point presentations and make new ones!


From the Summary page 240:


Vision is by far the most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources.


What we see is only what our brain tells us we see, and its not 100% accurate.


The visual analysis we do has many steps.  The retina assembles photons into little movie-like streams of information.  The visual cortex processes these streams, some areas registering motion, others registering color, etc.  Finally, we combine that information back together so we can see.


We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken word.  (Our evolutionary history on the Savannah was filled with images – trees, food, and saber-tooth tigers, not text!)




Male and female brains are different


In the book, sex generally refers to biology and anatomy and gender refers to mostly to social expectations.  Gender differences can be divided into three areas:

  1. Genetic
  2. Neuroanatomical
  3. Behavioral


Medina said most scientists will spend their entire career exploring one of them.


The basic default setting of the mammalian embryo is to become female.




Get the facts straight on emotions:

  1. Emotions are useful. They make the brain pay attention.
  2. Men and women process certain emotions differently
  3. The differences are a product of complex interactions between nature and nurture.


Try different gender arrangements in the classroom

Use gender teams in the workplace.


From the summary on page 260:


Males have 1 X chromosome. Females have 2 – although one is a back up.  The X chromosome is a cognitive “hot-spot” carrying a large percentage of genes involved in brain manufacture.


Women are genetically more complex, because the active X chromosomes in their cells are a mix of Mom’s and Dad’s.  Men’s X chromosomes all come from Mom and their Y chromosome carries less than 100 genes, compared with about 1,500 genes in the X chromosome.


Men’s and women’s brains are different structurally and biochemically (example: men have a bigger amygdala and produce serotonin faster) but we don’t know if those differences have significance.


Men and women respond differently to acute stress: Women activate the left hemisphere’s amygdala and remember the emotional details.  Men use the right side amygdala and get the gist.




We are powerful and natural explorers


Babies have an unquenchable NEED TO KNOW. Babies are born with a deep desire to understand the world around them and an incessant curiosity that compels them to aggressively explore it. (pg 265)


Object permanence = the concept of knowing something is still there even if it’s removed from view.  Object permanence is important on the savannah! Saber-toothed tigers still exist even if they duck down in the grass! (pg 268) Those who didn’t develop object permanence probably became lunch!


What is obvious to you is obvious to you. (pg 268)


Mirror neurons are cells whose activity reflect their surroundings. Example: if a primate simply heard a sound of something it had previously experienced (the tearing of a piece of paper) these neurons would fire up as though the monkey was experiencing the full stimulus. Not long after mirror neurons were identified in the human brain too.


We do not outgrow our thirst for knowledge! (pg 270)


Our survival depended upon chaotic, reactive information-gathering experiences.  One of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas.  “The red snake with the white stripe bit me yesterday and I almost died.”  But then we went a step further and hypothesized that if we encountered that snake again, the same thing will happen!


It is a learning style we literally have explored for millions of years. It is impossible to outgrow it in the whisper short seven to eight decades we have on the planet! (pg 271)


Curiosity matters.


A child’s need to know is a drive as pure as a diamond and as distracting as chocolate. (pg 273)


Medina states that if children are allowed to remain curios they will continue to deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 110!


Discovery brings joy, says Median. Exploration creates the need for more discovery so that more joy can be experienced!   Experience breeds confidence to take intellectual risks. (pg 273)





Analyze the success of medical schools.  The best medical school model has three components a teaching hospital, faculty who work in the field as well as teach, and research labs.


What if we applied this model to our school system?  He proposes a college of education that studies the brain.  A college of education that is all about brain development and like a medical school, is divided into three parts: 1) traditional classrooms, 2) a community school staffed and run by three types of faculty: traditional education faculty, certified teachers who teach little ones, and brain scientists. And 3) research labs devoted to a single purpose: investigating how the human brain learns in teaching environments, then actively testing hypothesized ideas in real-world classroom situations. (pg 277)


The greatest brain rule, says Median, is one he cannot prove – the importance of curiosity.


From the summary on page 280:


Babies are the model of how we learn – not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.


Specific parts of the brain allow this scientific approach.  The right prefrontal cortex looks for errors in our hypothesis (saber-tooth tiger is not harmless) and an adjoining region tells us to change behavior (run!).


We can recognize and imitate behavior because of mirror neurons scattered across the brain.


Some parts of our adult brains stay as malleable as a baby’s, so we can create neurons and learn new things throughout our lives!




Brain Rules

By John Medina

Book summary shared with you by Lisa Murphy

April 6, 2012

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