Book Review – Brain Rules By John Medina

Brain Rules is a book about the brain for every day people like you and me (provided you’re not a neuroscientist) who would not normally be caught picking up a book on neuroscience. So if you want to learn a bit more about how your brain works, this is a book for you. John Medina, the author, is a molecular biologist who has an interest in how brain sciences might influence the way we teach our children and how we work. Medina outlines 12 principles about the brain which he terms as brain rules that deal with things such as the impact of sleep, exercise and stress on the brain. The book has 12 chapters with each chapter covering a brain rule and it contains 264 pages. If you don’t mind reading a bit about human history and light neuroscience, you should enjoy this book. A lot of the advice John gives in the book regarding how we can take care of our brain is practical and doable, but there is also a lot of information that points out the negative effects of modern day lifestyles on our brains. So would I recommend this book? My answer? Yes. After reading just the chapters on exercise and sleep, I got some good ideas about how to better support my brain. All things being equal I intend to keep reading, speaking and writing well into my advanced years and that requires having an alert brain. Whatever it is you enjoy doing I’m sure will require you to be mentally alert too. Medina can surely give you a few tips. Following is a chapter by chapter review of the book.

Introduction: This is the only chapter whose title is not labelled with one of the brain rules, but it does cover the first brain rule which is – Survival – the human brain evolved too. After introducing his learning intention for the book to introduce us to 12 things known about how the brain works, Medina jumps straight into explaining what the first brain rule is about. Medina goes through some history to show how the brain evolved to help humans adapt to their surrounding helping them to deal with threats, survive in harsh conditions and creatively develop more livable conditions. He states that the brain seems to have been designed for solving problems, related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment and to do so in nearly constant motion. Symbolic reasoning, something our brains allow us to do is described as a unique human talent which makes human beings distinct from animals.

Brain Rule 2 Exercise – Exercise boosts brain power: This second rule looks at exercise and the brain. One thing is clear in regards to this brain rule – our brains were built for movement – so there is an undeniable link between exercise and mental alertness. Some of the questions answered in this chapter are:

  • Factors that predict how long we will live, in this case having an active lifestyle may help prolong life.
  • Does exercise make people more mentally alert, to which the answer is yes.
  • What type of exercises must we do to help our brains and how much?
  • Can exercise help with treating ailments such as dementia and depression?
  • Also does exercise help kids do better in school?

Summarily, when we move, we improve our thinking skills.

Brain Rule 3 Sleep – Sleep Well, Think Well: The third brain rule looks at the connection between sleep and how our brains work. This chapter presents a lot of interesting information about sleep such as how cells and chemicals work in conflict to keep us awake and put us to sleep, the different patterns that different people have and the fact that our sleep needs are more individual than general. The key message about this rule is that, “loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning and even motor dexterity.”

Brain Rule 4 Stress – Stressed Brains Don’t Learn The Same Way: The fourth brain rule on stress has one clear message – stress inhibits  our ability to learn. In discussing this brain rule Medina clearly outlines the impact of stress on the brain and how that affects in turn affect our ability to learn. Our bodies are built for very short term stress and so prolonged levels of high stress are detrimental to us. Continuous stress can even lead to conditions like depression. Medina explains how stress at home and work can affect us. He gives some ideas on how to manage stress both at work and in the family.

Brain Rule 5 Wiring – Every Brain is Wired Differently: Our brains are wired differently and when we learn new things, the way our brains are wired changes. This and other information about how our brains are wired is what Medina discusses in this brain rule. In some aspects of the brain the difference is so amazing that the structure and functions of individual brains are mapped differently in such a way that we each store language in different parts of the brain. This brain rule will give you information about how what we learn and do physically changes what our brain looks like. Also how the various regions of the brain develop at different rates in different people and the fact that no two people’s brains store information the same way is discussed.

Brain Rule 6 Attention – We Don’t Pay Attention To Boring Things: Did you know that, “typically attention increases from the beginning of a lecture to 10 minutes into the lecture but starts decreasing from that point on .” Some key lessons about our brains is expressed here. For instance the brain pays attention to emotionally charged events and it also pays attention more to the meaning of things before it can grasp the details. Research has also shown that the brain cannot multitask. Focusing on doing one thing at a time helps the brain perform better.

Brain Rule 7 Memory – Repeat To Remember: This is a large chapter with lots of information going into detail about short-term and long-term memory, and how they are formed. Also the different memory systems that the brain has are discussed. Some advice is given on how to remember things, therefore improving memory. They include:

  • If we can encode a memory more elaborately in its initial moments it will become stronger.
  • Our chances of remembering something is greater if we can reproduce the environment in which we first put it into our brain.
  • We can make long-term memory more reliable by incorporating new information gradually and repeating it in timely intervals.

Brain Rule 8 Sensory Integration – Stimulate More of The Senses at The Same Time:  This brain rule is about sensory integration and it goes into detail about how our brains handle sensory information. What is amazing about this rule is how our brains can absorb an indelible amount of different information and integrate them into a single coherent experience. Some of the applications of this rule to learning is intriguing. For instance people learn better from information presented to them in multi-sensory manner rather than in a uni-sensory way. There is an interesting experiment described that validates this fact. There is also information on how smell boosts memory and some companies have used this discovery for sensory branding.

Brain Rule 9 Vision – Vision Trumps All Other Senses: According to Medina, vision is by far our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. An interesting experiment to validate this shows how wine tasters were fooled into thinking white wine was red wine by putting tasteless dye into the white wine. This chapter has much detail on how our vision is created and it is complex. It also informs us that what we see is nor necessarily accurate, but what our brain tells us. Medina does give some tips about how this information on vision and our brain can aid learning, here are two:

  1. Use visuals, video and animation to pass on instruction. People learn better with such images especially if they are in motion.
  2. Communicate with pictures more than words.

Brain Rule 10 Music – Study or Listen to Boost Cognition: This is an interesting chapter. Did you know that there is no universal definition for music and scientists can’t agree on the purpose of music or why it exists? Amusing. There’s another question – What does music training do for the brain? According to research, it doesn’t necessarily improve math scores, or reading ability. Neither does it improve IQ, but it does boost language skills especially for those who start at a younger age. There is more information in this chapter about the link between speech and music and the fact that music lessons can help improve social skills because musicians are better at detecting emotions and how music changes our moods.

Brain Rule 11 Gender – Male and Female Brains Are Different: If you’ve ever wanted to learn about how we got our gender from a reproductive perceptive then welcome to your 2 minute lesson from John Medina. It’s a precursor to the section on the differences in structure between the male and female brain. Essentially this brain rule deals with the differences between the male and female brain and it introduces us to differences in behavior and verbal communication. Also there is information on biochemical differences and the fact that the female brain responds much differently to acute stress.

Brain Rule 12 Exploration – We Are Powerful and Natural Explorers: John starts this chapter with an interesting story to illustrate our innate abilities to explore. The story is about his two year old son getting stung by a bee. Even as babies Medina says that humans are explorers, he quotes, “Babies are born with a deep desire to understand the world around them and an incessant curiosity that compels them to aggressively explore it .” So what this really tells us is that we have the ability to explore wired into us from birth. The good news is we don’t ever outgrow that nature. Medina believes we can remain life long learners. He tells the story of two award winning scientists  well into their seventies and still very active in their work. About them he wrote, “They taught me that our learning abilities don’t have to change with age.” A great lesson from this chapter is that our brain remains malleable and wired to keep learning even  as we age. Importantly we must remain curious, challenge ourselves to explore and keep learning. This is good for our brains.

For me this was a delightful book. Not an easy read with all the brain science stuff, but  you can certainly learn a lot from it. I certainly recommend it and you don’t have to read it page by page. Here are my top lessons from the book:

  • Don’t stop exploring, remain curious.
  • Stress doesn’t help our brains, avoid it.
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise, even if it is just walking.
  • Sleep well, but not too much.
  • Communicate in a multi-sensory way, use more pictures than words.
  • Take music lessons.



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