Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review -- Brain Rules

Brain Rules
John Medina

I believe I received this book for Christmas 2009.  It's been on my nightstand for quite some time.  I read part-way through it, got caught up in other books and had to start over to re-orient myself to what I was reading.  I think that was providence - this past year we learned our son was on the autism spectrum.  We don't have a more specific diagnosis yet (he's still young) but a prominent local brain specialist did a preliminary observation with him earlier this year and that was his diagnosis.   A follow-up assessment is scheduled for later this year.  So, when I re-started, I was now reading from the perspective of not only curiosity, but also with the idea that maybe I could learn a little more about my son as I went.

Throughout the book, it regularly refers to the website www.brainrules.net.  I have not explored the website myself, but it looks like it has a lot of the content that's available on the DVD that comes with the hardbound book.  (I've linked you directly to this book's content as there is other content on the site for another book.  Use the navigation at left on that site to view slides and videos and hear audio that gives you additional details and examples beyond what's in the book.)

This was one thick paperback, clocking in at 280 pages.  The content was really meaty, when I did start reading the second time, I found that often a single chapter (there are 12) would take me two nights to read.  There are lots of examples and interesting facts.  I would recommend this as an interesting read.  The author's predisposition towards evolution can be distracting if you hold a creation viewpoint or haven't decided where you stand on the issue.  You can get a lot from the website, but it's probably better as an accompaniment than a replacement for the book.  The book could also be a good gift for anyone who has an inquisitive mind and enjoys learning new things.

The author John Medina is (according to the bio at the front of the book*) is a developmental 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 Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.  He lives in Seattle, Washington.  (*Taken verbatim - not intending to thwart copyright laws, but to give you a succinct explanation of his particular qualifications.)

Each chapter presents a rule: Not so much a mandate or checklist for you to follow, but rather something research has suggested is true through repeated testing and examination.  The rule is presented, explained, specific real-life examples are presented, and then ideas about how we ought to change the way we do things is suggested.  If there are exceptions, those are called out as well.  (For instance, if our ancestors walked 12 miles a day, then perhaps sitting in a cubical all day is unhealthy for our bodies, specifically our brains, with specific examples about how we ought to go about becoming more healthy.)  Each chapter ends with a summary.

Here are the 12 rules:

1. Exercise: Exercise boosts brainpower.

2. Survival: The human evolved, too.  (We have three brains.)

3. Wiring: Every brain is wired differently.

4. Attention: We don't pay attention to boring things.

5. Short-term Memory: Repeat to remember.

6. Long-term Memory: Remember to repeat.

7. Sleep: Sleep well, think well.

8. Stress: Stressed brains don't learn the same way.

9. Sensory Integration: Stimulate more of the senses.

10. Vision: Vision trumps all other senses.

11. Gender: Male and female brains are different.

12. Exploration: We are natural and powerful explorers.

As I read, I made some specific notes, things that really stood out to me.

Alerting - our brains have three phases to alerting (Posner).  Phase 1 "Intrinsic Alertness" says we're constantly monitoring what's around us.  If something unexpected occurs, we transition to "Phasic Alertness" - we focus our attention on the disturbance (involuntary reaction).  Third, the "Executive Network" kicks into play, determining how to react (voluntary/deliberate reacton).  

More complexity leads to greater learning - if it takes more work to process/understand something, there's a greater chance of us learning from it, remembering it later.  If something is easy, boring* or simple, we may not capture anything from the encounter and thus have trouble recalling it later.  (*Boring could also mean 'perceived to be irrelevant.'  This is probably one of my problems at work - if I encounter a piece of information that I don't know how to put into the mold of what I already know, I may have trouble remembering it later, I may mentally discard it. This is why I write so much down, so that I can look it up later, or so that the process of writing it down as another chance for me to make it stick in my head a little longer.)

Environmental Cues and State-Dependent Context - if you are learning something for the purpose of later recall - either for application or for testing, you should learn it in an environment that matches the environment where you will later need to recall it.  For example, if you are doing classroom learning on repairing jet engines, your classroom should be on the floor or a maintenance facility (or at least in a classroom with windows through which you can see into the facility) so that as you're learning, you're also experiencing what you're learning.  Or as a silly example, if you will be taking a test in a movie theater, study with the lights down low while eating (and smelling) fresh popcorn.

Stress - one element of stress that you cannot control (in school or work) - stress caused at home.  If there is any way to control, mitigate, reduce, it should be done.  The author suggests that a child's school system ought to start at birth with classes for parents.  Understandably, a lot of ink is spent on the effects of stress at home on a child's ability to learn and do well in school or an employee's ability to perform well or efficiently at work.  This is an area that is sadly seemingly under-approached in the real world, despite the implications.

Occupational Stress - this was a great "Aha!" moment for me as it applies to me and to those who work for me.  A major source of occupational stress occurs when a great deal is expected of you -- but you have no control as to whether or not you will perform well.

Another quote from the book about stress: "Studies show that a certain amount of uncertainty can be good for productivity, especially for bright, motivated employees.  What they need is a balance between controllability and uncontrollability.  Slight feelings of uncertainty may cause them to deploy unique problem-solving strategies."

And an author to look up: John Gottman (can tell within 3 minutes of interacting with a couple - with 90% accuracy - if they will last as a couple).
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