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  • Dan Connors

Brain Rules- 12 ways to hack your brain to better thinking.

Updated: May 29, 2022

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

John Medina 2008

Americans spend billions and billions of dollars to make their outsides look good through cosmetic surgery, personal training, hair styling, tattoos, piercings, makeup, and all sorts of enhancements. We also spend billions more fixing up our rickety bodies as they break down from time to time.

But we spend precious little time or energy working on improvements to that three pound bundle of nerves between our ears known as the brain. We take our brains for granted, and are simultaneously unaware and in awe of how they can do so much. Brains use up much of the energy we consume, yet they get little attention for all the important work that they do.

Into this void comes John Medina, one of the world's best known writers about the brain and a molecular biologist from Seattle. Brain Rules was a New York Times bestseller, and has been followed up with other books- Brain Rules for Baby, Brain Rules for Aging Well, Attack of the Teenage Brain, and Your Best Brain- the Science of Brain Improvement. This book pretty much puts it all out there for anybody who wants to know how to improve their brain functions and results.

There are 12 rules that Medina claims are the best way to understand and improve the brain. In order to get the best out of it, we need to know how it developed and what it needs to function the best. Here they are.

1- The brain has evolved along with mankind. The brains of Generation Z are likely different than those of the baby boomers and those that came before. Brains adapts to variation in environments, and help us survive in an unstable surroundings with their powers of adaptability and ability to cooperate with the brains of others.

2- Exercise boosts brain power. One of the greatest predictors of success in aging is whether the person led a sedentary or active lifestyle. Getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 2 or 3 times a week seems to be the minimum to qualify as active. Medina uses the excellent metaphor of roads. When we exercise, the "roads" inside our brain become wider, flatter, and easier to transport vital nutrients and blood to the brain. Being sedentary causes those "roads" to become more treacherous and less reliable, and our brains suffer for it.

3- Sleep well, think well. Not getting enough sleep (8 hours for most of us), results in loss of memory, attention, and executive functions. There is a constant state of tension in our body between sleep chemicals and waking chemicals, and they are there to keep us and our brains healthier. The two forces of sleeping and waking are in equal strength during late afternoons, aka the "nap zone", which is not a good time to be doing your most involved thinking.

4- Stressed brains don't learn the same way as relaxed brains. Our brains are built for short bursts of stress, like meeting a deadline or running away from a predator. They are not, however, built for long periods of chronic stress. Chronic stress damages the blood vessels, harms memory and learning, kills brain cells, and leads to all sorts of chronic physical ailments. High cortisol levels that come from chronic stress hurts learning up to 50%, making reasoning and memory much more troublesome.

5- Every brain is wired differently. While there is some consistency in how the brain is divided up in the big regions, the actual wiring of synapses depends on your life experiences and how you react to them. Each of us has a unique road map of the world, and our brains are always changing by learning new things and pruning out old information that no longer matters. Learning actually rewires your brain, and constant practice at one skill makes the neurons dedicated to the skill stronger and stronger.

6- We don't pay attention to boring things. Our brains need stimulation to capture our interest and awareness. Emotions are more likely to grab our attention, and we pay attention to the big picture and gist of an idea before diving into the details. Our brains are always on the lookout for new and unusual things, but it has limits. The brain cannot multitask according to this book, and attempts to do two things at once are met with poor results. The brain also doesn't do well when it's overstuffed with too much information- we need a break every ten minutes or so to process what we read or hear and move on.

7- For better memory- repeat to remember. Memory has a distinct survival advantage in that it gives us access to multiple things that already worked or didn't work in a situation. But our brains don't work like recording devices. Information has to be encoded and broken down for storage, and then somehow retrieved in a usable format. (And our brains are imperfect at best in recalling things accurately.) For the best results, Medina recommends improving the quality of our encoding- providing emotional or memorable hooks that make the memory stronger so that it can be recalled more easily. (PTSD memories come back even when we don't want them to precisely because of the strong emotions felt when we first encode them.) Repetition, especially in spaced intervals, is a great way to fix memories that aren't quite as emotionally involving.

8- Stimulate more senses. Humans have 5 senses, but use only one or two (sight and sound) for much of their information input. The brain is able to use all 5 senses at once when it needs to make complex pictures, and utilizing the three lesser-used senses helps. Special attention needs to be put on the sense of smell, which has been documented to aid in memory retrieval because if the unique way we perceive smells emotionally through the amygdala. When our brain has both sight and sound, it will process more than if it just has visual cues.

9- Vision trumps all other senses. We remember up to 65% of information we see in pictures, and only 10% of that we hear orally. Our brain remembers pictures twice as well as it does words on a page. Perhaps that's why memes are becoming the preferred way to share information online. We have to piece together words in order and assemble them to make a picture in our head, kind of like what you're doing now, dear reader.

10- Study music to boost cognition. Multiple studies have shown that music lessons and training help with unrelated tasks. Music students have been shown to be more empathetic, better at detecting emotions, better with spacial reasoning, and possessing better language and social skills. Schools that ditch music programs to devote more time to math and reading may be sabotaging themselves.

11- Male and female brains are different. The Y chromosome that determines maleness is much smaller than the X chromosome (100 genes versus 1500 genes/) This makes men more vulnerable to some genetically transmitted diseases because they have fewer genes to work with. The hippocampus, which stores memories, is larger in women, while the amygdala, where emotions arise, is larger in men. Women are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and anorexia than men. Men are more likely to suffer from addiction disorder, retardation, and schizophrenia than women.

12- We are powerful and natural explorers. Starting from infancy we begin to actively learn about and test hypotheses regarding our environment. Lifelong learning is a part of human brain function and we should always be seeking ways to grow new connection and understand our world better.

This book is full of interesting facts about the brain, and is written without too much scientific jargon to scare readers off. Brain Rules is an interesting and easily explained encyclopedia of brain facts, and there's nothing earth-shattering here, but the book is a good look at various aspects how our brain works. There are other books on the brain that probably do a much more thorough job, and some are reviewed on this blog. This easy-to-read book is written for the general public, and is a great introduction to brain science for those who haven't thought about it much.

I found the chapters on exercise, stress, attention, and memory particularly helpful. The books on the brain's most vulnerable stages- early childhood and old age look to be a helpful extension of this brand and I may have to check them out in future blog entries.

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