John Medina’s Brain Rules: A book review by Bob Morris

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
John Medina
Pear Press (2008)

Note: I read this book as soon as it was published (in 2008) and then reviewed it for Amazon. I recently re-read it and the fact remains that no other book on what the brain is and does – published since — surpasses it in terms of the quality of Medina’s information or insights.

In the Introduction, John Medina expresses his concern that most people are “out of the loop” in that they are unaware of recent and important revelations in modern neuroscience concerning “how the mind works.” His purpose is to explain 12 “brain rules” and devotes a separate chapter to each. “Easily the most sophisticated information-transfer system on Earth, your brain is fully capable of taking little black squiggles on this piece of bleached wood [i.e. ink on paper] and deriving meaning from them. To accomplish this miracle, your brain sends jolts of electricity crackling through hundreds of miles of wires composed of brain cells so small that thousands of them could fit into the period at the end of this sentence. You accomplish all this in less time than it takes you to blink. Indeed, you have just done it. What’s equally incredible, given your intimate association
with it, is this: Most of us have no idea how our brain works.”
The key ideas in Medina’s book are readily accessible to a layperson such as I who – until reading his book – had little (if any) understanding of “how our brain works.” It is amazing but nonetheless true, Medina asserts, that there is a young man who can multiply the number 8,388,628 x 2 in his head in a few seconds “and he gets it right every time,” that there is a girl who can correctly determine the exact dimensions of an object 20 feet away, and that there is a child who at age 6 drew “such lifelike and powerful pictures” that she got her own show on Madison Avenue.
Briefly, here are five of 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Medina’s analysis of each responds to two questions “How?” and “Why?”:
#5: Repeat to remember: “We now know that the space between repetitions is the critical component for transforming temporary memories into more persistent forms. Spaced learning is greatly superior to massed learning.”
#7: Sleep well, think well: “The brain is in a constant state of tension between cells and chemicals that try to put you to sleep and cells and chemicals that try to keep you awake.”
#9: Nourish the five senses with increased stimulation: “Our senses evolved to work together – vision influencing hearing, for example – which means that we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once.”
#10: Vision trumps all other senses: “We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words.”
#12: Our brains are by nature highly inquisitive (i.e. “powerful explorers”): “Babies are a model of how we learn – not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion.”
Fortunately, Medina’s scientific explanations of “how” and “why” are presented in layman’s terms without “dumbing down” what is obviously complicated information. He succeeds brilliantly, not only when explaining “how our brains work” but also when and why they work best… or when and why they don’t. After reading Chapter 4 in which he explains what he calls “the 10-minute rule,” I decided to limit my subsequent reading of his book to 10-minute increments, then shifted my attention to another task. After you read Chapter 4, you’ll understand that decision.
A DVD is provided with each copy of this book and John Medina suggests (as do I) that it be viewed before processing the “little black squiggles” that comprise his lively narrative.
One final point: I wish this book had been available years ago when I was completing my formal education, beginning a career as an English teacher, and then starting a family. That said, I can at least purchase copies for my three sons and daughter…and will.
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