Introduction to Brain Rules

Go ahead and multiply the number 8,388,628 x 2 in your head. Can you do it in a few seconds? There is a young man who can double that number 24 times in the space of a few seconds. He gets it right every time. There is a boy who can tell you the exact time of day at any moment, even in his sleep. There is a girl who can correctly determine the exact dimensions of an object 20 feet away. There is a child who at age 6 drew such lifelike and powerful pictures, she got her own show at a gallery on Madison Avenue. Yet none of these children could be taught to tie their shoes. Indeed, none of them have an IQ greater than 50.

The brain is an amazing thing. Your brain may not be nearly so odd, but it is no less extraordinary. Easily the most sophisticated information-transfer system on Earth, your brain is fully capable of taking little black squiggles from a piece of bleached wood 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 of this in less time than it takes you to blink. Indeed, you have just done it. What's equally incredible, given our intimate association with it, is this: Most of us have no idea how our brain works.

This has strange consequences. We try to talk on our cell phones and drive at the same time, even though it is literally impossible for our brains to multitask when it comes to paying attention. We have created high-stress office environments, even though a stressed brain is significantly less productive. Our schools are designed so that most real learning has to occur at home. This would be funny, if it weren't so harmful.

Blame it on the fact that brain scientists rarely have a conversation with teachers and business professionals, education majors and accountants, superintendents and CEOs. Unless you have the Journal of Neuroscience sitting on your coffee table, you're out of the loop. My book is meant to get you into the loop.

12 brain rules
My goal is to introduce you to 12 things we know about how the brain works. I call these Brain Rules. For each rule, I present the science and then offer ideas for investigating how the rule might apply to our daily lives, especially at work and school. The brain is complex, and I am taking only slivers of information from each subject—non-comprehensive but accessible.

A sampling of the ideas you'll encounter:

-For starters, we are not used to sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed while working out, walking as many as 12 miles a day. The brain still craves the experience, especially in sedentary populations like our own. That's why exercise boosts brain power (Brain Rule #1) in such populations. Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving tasks, and more. I am convinced that integrating exercise into our eight hours at work or school would only be normal.

- As you no doubt have noticed if you've ever sat through a typical PowerPoint presentation, people don't pay attention to boring things (Brain Rule #4). You've got seconds to grab someone's attention, and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done quickly—something emotional and relevant. Also, the brain needs a break. That's why I use stories in this book to make many of my points.

- Ever feel tired around 3 o'clock in the afternoon? That's because your brain really wants to take a nap. You might be more productive if you did: In one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots' performance by 34 percent. Even so, the brain isn't resting while it sleeps. It is surprisingly active. And whether you get enough rest affects your mental agility the next day. Sleep well, think well (Brain Rule #7).

- We'll meet a man who can read two pages at the same time, one with each eye, and remember everything in the pages forever. Most of us do more forgetting than remembering, of course, and that's why we must repeat to remember (Brain Rule #5). When you understand the brain's rules for memory, you'll see why I want to destroy the notion of homework.

- We'll find out why the terrible twos only look like active rebellion but are actually a child's powerful urge to explore. Babies may not have a lot of knowledge about the world, but they know a whole lot about how to get it. We are all natural explorers (Brain Rule #12), and this never leaves us, despite the artificial environments we've built for ourselves.

Back to the jungle
What we know about the brain comes from biologists who study brain tissues, experimental psychologists who study behavior, and cognitive neuroscientists who study how the first relates to the second. Evolutionary biologists have gotten into the act as well. Though we know precious little about how the brain works, our evolutionary history tells us this: The brain appears to be designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment, and to do so in nearly constant motion. I call this the brain's performance envelope. If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over.

In many ways, starting over is what the book is all about.


Barry said...

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the role a ketogenic diet can play in improving mental alertness and clarity.

Conversely I'd be interested to hear your take on the effect our excessively carbohydrate based modern diet has on the brain. I'm sure you'll agree, we didn't evolve eating grains and sugar.

Katie Harris said...

Hi John

I'm 3/4 of the way through reading your book and I'm finding it absolutely fascinating.

Just wanted to let you know that I've learned so much from it. It's a wonderful resource with so many practical applications it makes my head spin happily.

Looking forward to the next edition already!

; )

Katie Harris
Zebra Research

Recess said...

Finding your blog was like a gift from my fairy god mother. I have been extolling the virtues of nearly all of your rules for years on the basis on physiology and other ideas that you cover - such as the time in which our brain and physiology evolved versus the environment in which most of us operate now. And then here you are with a whole bunch of fun, engaging brain science to back up what I've been saying from a new scientific perspective. I love science. We gave you a shout out on the Recess blog.