John Medina: An interview by Bob Morris

Medina-J2John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist focused on the genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. He has spent most of his professional life as a private research consultant, working primarily in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries on research related to mental health. He holds joint affiliate faculty appointments at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in its Department of Bioengineering, and at Seattle Pacific University, where he is the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research.

Medina was the founding director of the Talaris Research Institute, a Seattle-based research center originally focused on how infants encode and process information at the cognitive, cellular, and molecular levels. In 2004, Medina was appointed to the rank of affiliate scholar at the National Academy of Engineering. He has been named Outstanding Faculty of the Year at the College of Engineering at the University of Washington; the Merrill Dow/Continuing Medical Education National Teacher of the Year; and, twice, the Bioengineering Student Association Teacher of the Year. Medina has been a consultant to the Education Commission of the States and a regular speaker on the relationship between neurology and education.

Medina’s books include: Brain Rules, Brain Rules for Baby, The Genetic Inferno, The Clock of Ages, Depression, What You Need to Know About Alzheimer’s, The Outer Limits of Life, Uncovering the Mystery of AIDS.

Morris: Before discussing Brain Rules, a few general questions. First, when and why did you first recognize the relevance of your formal education in the natural sciences to improving the quality of human life “at work, home, and school”?

Medina: The “when” was essentially immediate. My specialty is understanding the genetics of psychiatric disorders. The relevance is immediate simply because of the nature of the topic. Whether at work, home or school, everybody carries their brain around them, and if the organ suffers from a disorder, we carry the disorder around with us too.

The “why” was also immediate, but encased a straight-up morality argument. I was being funded with federal money – that means taxpayer money, your money. I felt like I owed it not only to tell you what we were doing – you were paying my paycheck, after all, but to try to it relevant to real life. It helps that I have spent the bulk of my research life as a private consultant, mostly to biotech and pharmaceutical. They deal with very practical questions, too.

Morris: Charles Darwin has much of value to say about the necessity of being adaptable to environment changes. In your opinion, why are so many people unwilling and/or unable to do that, or at least do that effectively?

Medina: The brain doesn’t care about change. As the world’s most sophisticated survival organ, the brain cares about loss. . Change often involves loss, so change can be a risky experience.

This may have deep biological roots. Our ability to adapt came from our East African birthplace, a meteorologically unstable place. If you couldn’t adapt, you’d be dead. But once you’ve found a solution, there is no need to continue the adaptive behavioral parrying, which is bioenergetically very expensive to maintain. We are built to find answers, then hang on to them as long as we can.

Morris: In my opinion, the greatest leaders throughout history transformed the status quo in one form or another. In this sense, they were revolutionaries rather than evolutionaries. What are your own thoughts about this?

Medina: I would disagree, at least if you are talking about science. Historically, very few discoveries were made out of thin air. Most of the greatest insights depended upon the intellectual ecology in which the scientists lived. A certain critical mass of “new findings” occurred, and bright people all over the world found out about it, and several read the tea leaves the same way. There’s an independent eureka moment for each of these bright guys, but it came because the environment suggested it, however subtly.  I like the quote attributed to Newton “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. “

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) as to the extent to which human behavior is the result of nature or nurture. What do you think?

Medina: It’s an old war whose armistice has long been signed in the behavioral sciences. There are nature and nurture components to virtually every behavior a human experiences. The research effort lies only in finding the relevant percentages, not on some absolute value. That’s one of the reasons behavioral scientists have to be really good statisticians.

Morris: Of all that you have learned thus far about what the brain is and does, what do you find most amazing? Why?

Medina: I think the most incredible fact about the brain is that it is the only piece of biological real estate that can actually study itself. I can think about that for decades – I have, actually –  and still be in drop dead amazement.

Morris: As you know, research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University suggests that talent is overrated, that superior performance is more the result of thousands of hours of “deliberate practice” under expert supervision rather than is natural ability. What do you think?

Medina: I think he’s right, at least for the vast majority of us. But there are the Mozarts of the world, too, something “effort” discussions often leave out. You can practice for 30 years and still not be a Mozart. The most lethal combination would be a Mozart who practiced for thousands of hours.

Morris: Of all the questions yet to be answered concerning what the brain is and does, which is of greatest interest to you? Why?

Medina: The distance between a gene and a behavior is of greatest interest to me. The relative contributions of nature and nurture, of nucleotide and nuclear family, are perpetually fascinating to me.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Brain Rules. Although you certainly provide in it a wealth of information and insights about the human brain, it seemed to be as I read it and then re-read it several times, that the book’s greatest value is derived from the nature and extent of how each reader applies what is learned to her or his own unique circumstances. Is that a fair assessment?

Medina: You bet. Early in the book I talk about the fact that every brain is wired differently from every other brain, and learns in ways unique to that wiring. There are a few generalities you can say about typically functioning brains – we all have memory systems, for example – but what we remember depends on those unique circumstances you mentioned. . Not even identical twins can have the exact same experiences, and their brains are not wired the same way.

Morris: Why is a classroom directly opposed to what the brain does best in an education environment?

Medina: People try to apply directly results from the cognitive neurosciences directly to classroom practice and I have to tell you I am very skeptical about the exercise. We don’t know very much about how the brain works –we don’t even know how you remember to write your name. But we do know something about the brains’ evolutionary performance envelope. The brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting, in unstable meteorological conditions, and to do so in near constant motion.

So even though we don’t know squat about how the brain works, the little we do know suggests that if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was naturally good at doing, you would design the education system we currently have, not only in this country, but all over the world!

Morris: Why do our brains love motion, “the incredible test-score booster”?

Medina: It’s because of that evolutionary envelope we just mentioned. There are estimates that we daily walked for 10 – 20 kilometers for hundreds of thousands of years. The world’s best problem solving machinery grew up under conditions of consistent, strenuous physical activity. It makes sense that when we don’t recreate the environments in which the organ was forged, we get a loss of function. And that when we do restore those environments, we get that function back. The effects of aerobic exercise on executive function skills is a powerful empirical example of this idea.

Morris: What is “a brilliant survival strategy”? Why is it so effective?

Medina: The ability to double our biomass –  not by waiting several million years and growing to be the size of an elephant – but waiting a few hundred thousand years for neurons to sprout into our brains – ones capable of having us create emotional relationships with other members of our species. We thereby double our biomass not by getting bigger, but by creating an ally.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Brain Rules, you discuss what you characterize as “the Jennifer Anniston neuron” in Chapter 3. What’s that all about?

Medina: There is a neuron in your brain that will respond only to pictures of Jennifer Aniston – provided you have had prior visual exposure to the actress. That neuron does not respond to pictures of Bill Clinton or Halle Berry. Only Jennifer. I used the story to explain the almost ridiculous plasticity of the organ. There is no such thing as Jennifer Aniston in our evolutionary history – she was born in 1969, for heaven’s sake – but we are flexible enough to devote an entire cell to her if we have previously encountered her in some fashion.

Morris: You then assert in Chapter 4 that “there is no such thing as multitasking.” Please explain.

Medina: It depends upon how you are defining multi-tasking. A lot of people confuse it with time splicing. We define multi-tasking as two or more simultaneously functioning, independently operating processes capable of providing unique and detachable output. So at one level, the brain fully multi-tasks: as your brain is reading this, it is also regulating our heartbeat.

Where the brain cannot multi-task is in what we call the attentional spotlight, the cognitive gadget you use when you are in school, or in a board meeting, trying to listen to the speaker. That spotlight can only pay attention to one thing at a time. If it could truly multi-task, you could read two pages of an open book, one page with each eye, and remember everything perfectly. You can’t, and that’s because your attentional spotlight can’t

Morris: How best to improve short-term memory significantly? Can anyone do that?

Medina: Yes. Reduce the stress in your life. And choose your parents wisely.

Morris: How best to improve long-term memory significantly? Again, can anyone do that?

Medina: We have to define the type of information being remembered. There are multiple memory gadgets in the brain, many working in a semi-independent fashion, in charge of processing different types of information.  I will use the example of declarative information, which is processed by the medial temporal lobe and assume by improve you mean something that is infinitely retrievable and not subject to corruption at retrieval.

The answer is quite simple. The information must be repeated. Over and over again, and in regularly timed intervals (as opposed to crammed intervals). This interleaved style has actually been shown to improve long-term retrieval in virtually every way you can measure improvement. You didn’t need to hear that from a brain scientist, however. This is something your third grade teacher could – and probably did – tell you every day.

Morris: Insofar as stress is concerned, how and why are home and work interdependent? So what? Why is that significant?

Medina: Because you don’t have a work brain and a home brain. You have a single brain, one you carry with you wherever you go. Whatever affects you in one place is fully capable of affecting you at the other.

Morris: Why and how does multisensory learning “mean better learning”?

Medina: Most of the cognitive gadgets that predict whether something that is being perceived will also be remembered occur in the first few seconds of learning. One of the biggest predictors is how many senses are being stimulated simultaneously at the moment of learning. The more senses recruited at the moment of learning, the more likely you are to recall it later. We think its because it gives you more access points.

Morris: How and why does vision always (or almost always) “trump” all other senses?

Medina: We’re not sure why, though we are beginning to understand how. A third or more of the brain is devoted to visual processing, not true of any other sense. We have color vision and it is truly binocular. This sophistication is not true of other senses, such as smell, where many genes are actually mutated and no longer work. Visual information is truly dominant, something so prevalent we actually give it a name. We call it the PSE, or Pictorial Superiority Effect.

Morris: When stress is involved, please explain the most significant differences between men and women.

Medina: Women tend to recall the details of an emotionally competent stimulus, using more of their left hemisphere to do the processing. Men tend to recall the gist aspects of an emotionally competent stimulus, using more of their right hemisphere to do the processing. This is the work of Larry Cahill.

Morris: Why are babies especially powerful and natural explorers?

Medina: Babies learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas. They use very sophisticated hypothesis testing strategies to find out about their world. Human learning is a very aggressive style in its native state. I am not sure why, though it is a very useful trait in an unstable, unpredictable living environment.

Morris: Of all the workplace changes that you advocate, which is most urgently needed? Why?

Medina: Understanding what stress actually does to productivity. If managers knew how deeply their behaviors could affect brain function – whether they are piling up too much work on someone or yelling at them for “motivational purposes”, they would quit doing it.

Morris: Of all the changes in formal education that you advocate, which is most urgently needed? Why?

Medina: The American system needs to rebalance what I call the cognitive equation. At one level, human learning is very easy to understand – a balance of two activities. You have to memorize a database, and then you need to improvise off that database almost as soon as you have memorized it. It is kind of like a jazz musician – one who learns music theory, then uses it to jam. The balance between memory and improvisation is important. Any education system that only memorizes things creates robots and will never produce Nobel laureates. Any education system that only emphasizes improvisation will get a bunch of people who may think they are creative, but they are functionally illiterate.

Americans have been good at improvising for a long time, but in the last few decades, we have gotten very sloppy about the rote memorization of facts.  That’s a discipline issue. You need the rote skill in order to have something to improvise off of, otherwise you are simply playing air guitar.

Morris: Most change initiatives and often because of cultural resistance that results from what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question. Which of the 12 principles that you identify and then discuss in Brain Rules will be most valuable when avoiding or overcoming such resistance? Why?

Medina: The exploratory rule. I have great confidence in human curiosity –even though I don’t know what curiosity is from a biological point of view. One of its characteristics has got to be the willingness to explore. If you are curious, you won’t be satisfied with the “tyranny of custom.” People stuck in that rut might say “why?” and the first thing an exploratory person would say is “why not?”

Morris: Recent research by high reputable firms such as Gallup and TowersWatson indicate that, on average, less than 30% of the employees in a U.S. workplace are actively and positively engaged; the others are either passively engaged (i.e. mailing it in) or actively disengaged. What specifically can senior-level executives learn from Brain Rules that will help them increase the percentage of actively and positively engaged employees in their workplace?

Medina: I have no idea, though I can imagine stress must be a part of it. There might even be a goldilocks effect. Years of research show us that the less control a person feels over an aversive stimuli coming at them, the more likely they are to disengage. Complete loss of control over a sustained period of time can actually lead to depression. It then follows that giving the person a level of control over the situation reduce the stress – and perhaps restore the disengagement.

It must also follow, however, that boredom could do the same thing. A factory worker at an assembly line, who can learn their job in 5 minutes, can get bored fairly easily, and disengage completely. They have complete control! So there may be a happy medium. A goldilocks effect is not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Morris: Here’s a related question. What specific lessons can educators learn from Brain Rules that will help them to increase substantially the quality of learning that students receive in schools, colleges, and universities?

Medina: The biggest take away from Brain Rules might be one of a call to research. Brain scientists and education scientists don’t get together very often, and we end up living in our own little silos. The lack of communication is telling. Most brain scientists have not taught 4th grade, and don’t know very much about the classroom, even though they might study learning in some detail. Most education professionals, who often know a tremendous amount about the classroom, don’t know much about the brain. That is one of the reasons why I am so skeptical about applying brain findings to the classroom. But I am not depressed. If we pooled our expertise, we could come up with a research program, that, given time, might become very prescriptive about how we should teach. A partnership is what Brain Rules is actually asking for.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, are most (if not all) of these lessons those that parents must learn who now home school their children?

Medina: I am not sure if it hits the last question, but there is something parents need to know: One of the greatest predictors of academic success that exist is the emotional stability of the home. So if parents are interested in education reform, they should also be interested in how they conduct themselves in front of their children. If they are homeschooling their kids, they are even more exposed, so the idea is even more important.

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John Medina cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:


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