Brain Rules

By: John Medina



Your brain is the most powerful piece of machinery you own, but it’s likely that it’s the least cared for. When was the last time you took it in for an oil change? In fact, I’m betting that you don’t even know how it works. Well, join the club.

Luckily, we’ve got John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist focussed on the genes involved in human brain development. He’s a doctor and he knows more about the brain than almost anybody on the planet. What you are going to learn in the next 12 minutes are the things you need to know in order to get your brain into tip top shape.

Rule #1 - get off your butt

Just in case you aren’t motivated to be on top of your game so you can rule the world, how about taking care of your brain so you don’t too soon? As it turns out, exercise isn’t only good for your heart, it’s good for your brain too.

Studies have shown that your lifetime risk for both demential and Alzheimer’s are cut in half if you exercise on a regular basis, even in modest amounts. So that’s the first thing you need to know about your brain - it wants you to exercise so that you don’t die.

Back in the day, when we were roaming around the Serengeti and grunting while we were hunting for food, we used to walk an average of 12 miles a day. Which means our bodies evolved on a heavy diet of exercise. We simply weren’t built to sit in front of a computer at a desk for 8 hours at a time.

So what will all this exercise do? It increases the flow of oxygen in our system, which then cleans up toxic chemicals left behind by food metabolism. It also stimulates the protein that keeps the neutrons connecting. All to say that if your brain stays healthy, YOU stay healthy.

Rule #4 - Attention.

People don’t pay attention to boring things. A shocking discovery, I know. What’s important here, however, is that the more attention the brain pays to something, the more elaborately the information gets encoded and stored in your memory.

Additionally, emotionally arousing events tend to be remembered better than neutral events. This has big implications for those who want to get a message across.

Think back to the last time you were in the classroom. Except this time, the teacher took their lessons from Dr. Medina. Here’s what you’d experience differently:

They’d start off with something that causes an emotional reaction related to the topic - for me, the scene at the end of Rudy where gets the call to join the team and sacks the quarterback - that would work.

They would the start off with a general overview so you could connect the dots along with way. For evolutionary reasons, you and I don’t tend to fill our brains with detailed minutiae, but generalised pictures of concepts or events. It’s tough to keep somebody’s attention if they don’t know how it relates to the big picture.

In each 10 minute section, they would concentrate on a single key point. Why? Because we tend to tune out after 10 minutes. That’s when it’s time to check back in and make things interesting again.

They wouldn’t let you play on your cell phone or talk to your friends during the presentation. Why? Because you simply can’t do more than one thing at a time, no matter how much you believe you can.

In fact, people who are interrupted take 50% longer to complete tasks and make 50% more mistakes while doing it. So, your teacher wasn’t being an egomaniac by forcing you to listen, they were trying to help you learn.

Rule #5 - Repeat to Remember

Rule #5 - Repeat to Remember. Rule #5 - Repeat to Remember. Rule #5 - Repeat to Remember. Rule #5 - Repeat to Remember.

Get it? This is an important one. You’re watching this because you want to learn something, right? Well, here are three interesting facts about improving your short-term memory.

First, the human brain can only hold about 7 pieces of information for less than 30 seconds. Essentially, our memories are a little bit stronger than a goldfish. But not much.

That first 30 seconds also determines whether or not you’ll remember what you just learned. So, if you want to remember the name of that tall drink of water you just met at the party, you need to keep saying his name. That’s why networking experts will tell you to always use somebody’s name at least 3 times during your initial discussion with them. Secondly, and puzzlingly, the more elaborate the information you choose to “encode”, the easier it is to remember. For instance, “Mark was wearing a ridiculous howling wolf t-shirt and told me that he still lives at home even though he’s 42 years old.” is better than “Mark, that guy from accounting”.

It’s the same idea when you create a sentence to help you remember an acronym, like “Never Eat Shredded Wheat”, which aside from being stunningly good advice, has helped millions of people around the world remember the 4 directions of the compass.

It’s more information, but for some reason it’s easier to remember. One of the best ways to elaborately encode something new you’ve learned? Do something with the knowledge - take an action. It will force you to add something memorable to the learning.

Third, you remember the best when you in the same “environment” as you were when you learned the information. So technically, if you are watching this video so that you’ll perform better at work, you’ll want to be watching this at work. Weird, but true. So, once again, do something with the knowledge at work, and do it now. Not next week, because that would be too late.

Rule #6 - Remember to Repeat.

Quick - what kind of shirt was Bob wearing? That’s right, that was a trick question, because his name was Mark. Well done, grasshopper. So you’ve remembered that for a good minute or so. But guess what? It takes years to cement a short-term memory into a long-term memory. And the key to doing it is repetition over time with specific timed intervals.

Let’s think back to our school years again. If you were anything like me, you probably crammed for your final exams. This seemed to work quite well, because I got pretty good grades, especially in my math classes, which was my major (BORING).

So, I’d take the test, get an A, and feel pretty damn proud of myself for how smart I was. Fast forward a few years and I can’t even add up the my golf score without making a mistake. I guess the joke was on me. You see, I did absolutely nothing to encode it into my memory, and now it’s gone.

How would you incorporate this concept into your learning? Allow for periods of reflection after you initially learn the material. For instance, if you and I had studied consistently over the semester, we would have allowed the information to stew around in our brain and start to form a semblance of a memory.

We probably should have also been a part of a study group that discussed the material because conversations with others will force us to connect more dots than we otherwise might have.

Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.

Fascinating fact: when we are sleeping, our brain is not resting at all. In fact, it uses more energy while you are sleeping than it does while you are awake! However, for about a million and one reasons, you need to get your sleep.

Think about it - from an evolutionary perspective, sleep puts us in an incredibly vulnerable position - just ask the poor people who find themselves face-to-face with a grizzly bear at the entrance to their tent. Thus, we must be doing something pretty important while we are sleeping.

So what happens when we don’t get our sleep? It decreases our ability to pay attention, our working memory, lowers our quantitative skills and logical reasoning, puts us in a terrible mood and even effects our motor skills. In fact, studies have shown that going 21 hours without sleep is the same as being legally drunk. Legally drunk is good for having fun, if that’s your thing, but not so good for learning.

How much sleep do you need? There are no hard and fast rules, but if you wake up feeling like you need more sleep, you probably do. You also could probably use a good cat nap around 3 in the afternoon, right at the 12 hour mark from the mid-point of your sleep.

If your boss wonders who you’ve put your ear plugs in and have your head planted firmly on your desk, you can regale her with this study: a 26-minute nap was shown to improve NASA pilots’ performance by 34 percent. Sure, your job description probably doesn’t include flying a space shuttle, but it does include using your brain.

Rule #8 - Stressed brains don’t learn the same as non-stressed brains

Apparently, our brain is built to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds. Like the stress you feel when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, or coming home after work and realising that you left the toilet seat up in the morning. The stress response in our body was designed in order to get our muscles moving and get us out of harm’s way. In these types of situations, the brain will actually perform better.

However, our brain isn’t designed to deal with long-term stress where we feel like we have no control over the situation - like dealing with a co-worker who constantly belittles you. In these situations, your brain can actually shrink.

Stress on the brain is kind of like George Constanza being “in the pool”. It also damages your memory, weakens your immune system so you get sick more often, disrupts your ability to sleep and makes you more susceptible to depression. This kind of stress sucks, big time.

Also, keep in mind that the same brain you use at home is the same brain you use at work. So if your home life stinks, you’re going to perform poorly at work. Conversely, if your work life stinks, your home life will suffer the consequences.

The advice? Find ways to get rid of the bad stress. Eliminate it from your life. It’s not good for you.

Rules #9 - stimulate more of the senses at the same time.

Yes, stimulation is a good thing. This is how your brain works. We absorb information through our different senses - so when we are meeting Mark for the first time we are seeing his wolf-shirt, hearing the sounds of the music that’s playing, smelling the…I think you get the picture. The brain then takes those signals, disperses them to different parts of the brain, THEN reconstructs the event, eventually perceiving it as a whole. Fascinating stuff.

Remember what we talked about earlier? Of course you do - the more information we encode with the memory, the more we remember the experience. And because our senses are being encoded as separate inputs, this counts as more information.

How much does this impact our ability to retain the memory? This is one of those situations where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There is an enormous link between this finding and learning: you’ll have more recall, with better resolution, that lasts longer. The link is evident even 20 years later.

Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.

Guess what? You are incredible at remembering pictures. Don’t believe me? Here are the cold hard facts. If you hear a piece of information, for instance my description of Mark earlier in the summary, 3 days later you’d remember 10% of it. But if we added a picture to the mix, you would remember 65% of that description.

So if pictures truly are worth a thousand words, what kind of things to we pay attention to in those pictures? We pay attention to colour. We pay attention to orientation. We pay LOTS of attention to size. And we pay very special attention to an object in motion.

So the next time you pick up a book, or a pdf, or anything in the written form without supporting visuals that help explain what’s in the words on the page, you’ve been cheated of a true learning opportunity.

That wraps up the summary. Remember, if you want to learn these principles and keep them in your long-term memory, be sure to read this again, then put it into action, and come back to the summary a few more times in the next few weeks. If you want to catch the Rules that we didn’t have time to get to, you’re just going to have to buy the book.