Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: Brain rules-12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home & school

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.
Reviewer: Elizabeth Aebersold
The human brain is full of vastly unexplored territory. Dr. John Medina tries to explain some of the known territory about the brain in his New York Times bestselling book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist has spent his career focused on the genes involved in human brain development. With an impressive biography of research and scientific achievements, Medina is a medical expert as well as an award winning teacher. In Brain Rules, Medina takes that knowledge and creates an easy to understand explanation of twelve brain principles. His book can be categorized somewhere between self-improvement and an introduction to neuroscience, with an emphasis on understanding the basics of how the brain works in order to think differently about how we live and work.
Brain Rules is divided into twelve “rules” of how the brain functions. Each chapter begins with a clever hook (Rule #4: Attention) that illustrates some facet of the brain rule. Medina then explains the science behind the rule and ideas for action. Throughout each chapter Medina weaves in personal stories and interesting research examples to further demonstrate and demystify the science.
The twelve rules break down into the following topics: Rule #1: Exercise (exercise boosts the brain), Rule #2: Survival (the human brain evolved too), Rule #3: Wiring (every brain is wired differently), Rule #4: Attention (we don’t pay attention to boring things), Rule #5: Short-term memory (repeat to remember), Rule #6: Long-term memory (remember to repeat), Rule #7: Sleep (sleep well, think well), Rule #8: Stress (stressed brains don’t learn the same way), Rule #9: Sensory Integration (stimulate more of the senses), Rule #10: Vision (vision trumps all other senses), Rule #11: Gender (male and female brains are different), and Rule #12: Exploration (we are powerful and natural explorers).
Medina makes the case that our greatest brain rule is the importance of curiosity and tapping unto our powerful need for exploration. Babies are born with the joy of learning and problem-solving. Unfortunately, this can be knocked out of our children as they learn what it means to get an “A” and “acquire knowledge not because it is interesting, but because it can get them something” (p. 273). Medina goes on to argue that our curiosity instinct is so powerful that we learn in spite of our educational system. This curiosity stays with us throughout our lifetime and we cannot outgrow our thirst for knowledge. Medina says, “…some regions of the 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” (p. 271). Medina leaves us with the reminder that “we must do a better job of encouraging lifelong curiosity"(p. 274).
Medina’s book is intriguing and entertaining. He has a gift for taking complex information and making it understandable. The brain research he presents calls into question many of the societal norms we have established that work against the way the brain is wired and has evolved. For example, what if meetings were conducted while walking in order to boost our brain power? Or school desks were equipped with treadmills? Our brains evolved by walking up to 12 miles per day – we think best when moving rather than sitting in cars, classrooms, or boardrooms.
There is a strong connection between Brain Rules and creativity. Creativity is ultimately a product of our brains. Having even a basic understanding of how our brains work can give us insight into the optimal conditions for supporting creativity. Several of his rules spark questions for creativity trainers, teachers, and practitioners. If vision trumps all senses (Rule #10) what might be the ways to integrate more visual thinking and imagery into our teaching? Exercise helps stimulate the brain (Rule #1) and a stressed brain doesn’t learn as well (Rule #8). How might we work in partnership with wellness programs to get the best thinking out of our students and work-force? What might be the ways to utilize people’s powerful need for exploration (Rule #12)? How might we more actively engage all the senses when learning (Rule #9) particularly to help with retention and recall of information? How might we structure training to tap into the natural learning power of the brain during sleep (Rule #7)?
One of my criticisms of Medina’s book is the puzzling lack of references in the book itself. A self-proclaimed “grumpy scientist” Medina claims he cites only research that has appeared in peer-reviewed journals and that has been successfully replicated. Medina posts the reference section on the book’s website. Perhaps this is a clever marketing tactic to drive traffic to the book’s website or a convenient synthesis of all the references in one place meant to keep the book uncluttered. The site contains audio, video, and additional supporting material aligned with Rule #9, Sensory Integration, however mapping the references back to the book is a challenge.
For such a complex topic, Brain Rules is easy to grasp in large part due to Medina’s sense of humor and storytelling ability. The book provides the reader with information about how the brain works and how we process information. It also goes into detail about the ways and circumstances under which we learn best. Medina uses his “brain rules” throughout the book through repetition, grabbing the reader’s attention, and engaging multiple senses. The reader can walk away with practical ways to apply the learning to different facets of life. It is a book worth reading for people interested in creativity in order to better understand the neuroscience behind problem-solving and the factors that contribute to or hinder idea generation. The value in the book is ultimately a set of principles for how the brain works and a richer understanding of how we think.

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