I just finished reading John Medina’s Brain Rules for the second time. It was published earlier this year and enjoys glowing reviews at Amazon.com. It’s worth checking out. My first reading went so smooth. I was thoroughly entertained and I hardly had any chance to stop and think what I really learned. I had to read it again, just to have another opportunity to understand many of the interesting topics presented in the book. Medina has very stringent requirements for any research results to show up in his book.The Medina Grump factor summarized the criteria he used: research must be published in a peer-reviewed journal and it must be successfully replicated. I assume he did his best to provide us with reliable information. Medina himself is a developmental molecular biologist and his “research expertise is the molecular basis of psychiatric disorders.” The research results Medina referred to touched on so many different disciplines, ranging from biology of the brain to the cognitive behaviors of people, medicine, experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, education research, and evolutionary biology, just to name a few.Each of these disciplines offers a different perspective and it’s great that Medina could bring them together. However, that is also where I have the biggest problem. After reading through, I don’t have a coherent picture of the brain. I wish I can see clearly, with each rule, that this is what we know for sure about the brain, at the structural level, at the physiological and biochemical level, at the empirical and behavior level, etc, and this is what we can infer from the hard evidence and apply in business and education. Not every rule could be explained at the various levels. Perhaps what we currently know in all the research fields doesn’t allow us to construct such a coherent picture. Medina said that the book was a call for research. Part of the value of the book lies in the ideas proposed and questions asked. I will certainly pay more attention to the new development in the brain research from now on.
. Here is the list of his 12 rules on the back cover
·WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently
·ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don't pay attention to boring things
·SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember
·LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat
·SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well
·STRESS |Rule #8: Stressed brains don't learn the same way
·SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses
·VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses
·GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different
·EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers
I don’t quite get why Medina structured his book the way it is and why in that particular order.For me to understand it, I need to structure everything I learned from this book with four central themes:
·How to take care of the brain as a physical organ: rule #1 (exercise), #8 (stress), and part of #7 (sleep),
·Individual differences in the brains: rule #2 (wiring), #11 (gender)
·What might have been the causes of the brain differences and how we should develop further along that line: rule #2 (survival), #12 (exploration)
·The best way to learn: rule #4 (attention), #5 (short-term memory), #6 (long-term memory), #9 (sensory integration), #10 (vision), and part of #7(sleep).
We will focus on the first theme in this part. For taking care of brain as a physical organ, Medina’s rules of exercise, stress, and sleep all make sense. Though, I wish he has one more rule about nutrition.
Exercise. Except for my brother-in-law, I’ve never heard anyone who thought exercise was bad. Exercise provides maintenance and improvement for the entire body. Specifically for the brain, exercise improves blood flow (more oxygen and nutrients to the brain) and increases protein BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). Oxygen helps remove the waste from the body and empirically it correlates with the cognitive performance. BDNF is supposed to act like a fertilizer for the neurons. I don’t quite get the causal link between exercise and BDNF generation. “Exercise also regulates the release of the three neurotransmitters most commonly associated with the maintenance of mental health: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.” For me, the benefit of increased oxygen flow is enough to convince me to have an exercise regimen. One of the interesting suggestions Medina made is to take exercise breaks instead of coffee breaks. He even put a treadmill in his office and tried to work on his laptop while walking on the treadmill. From my experience, certain types of thinking require so much concentration that the body has to be absolutely still. I’d alternate thinking and exercising.According to Medina exercise is THE FACTOR that predicts how well we will age. This is in direct contradiction with my personal observations. I understand that he draws his conclusion based on statistics and I derive my understanding by observing people I know. Still, I don’t believe that the physically active life style is the single most important predictor for graceful aging. One’s curiosity, wisdom, and one’s relationship with oneself and other people are far more important. At the end of the day, if you still have something you strongly desire to do, if you still have fierce determination, if you have the wisdom and judgment to determine how far you can still push yourself in a sustainable way, and if you have big enough heart to relate to and connect with other people from different age groups and not just to commiserate, you are far more likely to age gracefully.
Sleep. According to Medina sleep deprivation decreases the body’s ability to make use of the food consumed. “The ability to make insulin and to extract energy from glucose begins to fail miserably, and you find a marked need to have more of it, because the body’s stress hormone levels begin to rise in an increasingly deregulated fashion.” Prolonged sleep deprivation “appear to accelerate parts of the aging process.”Not many adults I know really wake up naturally in the morning, Medina recommended nap in the afternoon even if you have enough sleep at night. For me, 15-20 minutes nap is one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve ever had. The trick is that you have to get up after the preset time, even if you still feel tired.
Stress. People talk about stress all the time. What is stress anyway? Medina defined stress as a measureable/observable aroused physiological response toward something aversive that you have no control over. When the body senses the stress, the hypothalamus in the brain notifies the adrenal glands on top of the kidney to release stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. In the short term, the stress hormone could regulate the blood pressure and boost cardiovascular performance to deal with any dangerous or unexpected situations. But, if the stress is chronic, too much stress hormone is left in the blood for too long, it “stops regulating surges in your blood pressure”. This could cause damage of the blood vessels. Medina told us that the hippocampus (the part of the brain that is essential for human memory) had lots of cortisol receptors, which could disconnect cells from neural networks or stop generating new neurons. I wish I can have a clearer understanding on how the stress response works physiologically. Chronic stress can also push “people into depression, which is a deregulation of thought processes, including memory, language, quantitative reasoning, fluid intelligence, and spatial perception.”The worst thing is that many depressed people don’t see a way out. Given the high divorce rate in this country, it’s not surprising that the biggest chronic stressor is the hostility at home for many people. Medina mentioned John Gottman’s marriage intervention research and practice. Getting a relief from marital stress not just helps the adults involved; it also helps children perform better at school. If you experience a lot of tension at home, Gottman’s work might be worthwhile to check out.A friend of mine used to say that the best thing you can do for your children is to love your spouse so you can create an emotionally stable and secure home for your children. I can’t agree with that more. Stress itself doesn’t necessarily break you. The effect on you “depends on the length and severity of the stress, your perception of the stress, and your body”. We could make some lifestyle choices to let in fewer stressors and perhaps also work on our perception and interpretation of the stressful situations. Ultimately there are only two effective ways to handle stress, Medina’s “getting control back into your life”, and James Loehr’s stress and recovery cycles. These two approaches complement each other.
Is your work stressful? Do you still have energy left to enjoy your family and refresh yourself after your work hours? How do you manage stress? How do you use your down time? Do you seek out stress or do you wish to get away? According to James E. Loehr, a sports psychologist and the author of several books on toughness training, stress is good for you. All kinds of stress—physical, emotional, and mental. Here is Loehr’s big idea. Stress is not the problem, our response to stress is. Most stressed out people don’t know how to recover from the stress effectively. Based on his research on elite athletes, he found that top performers know how to use trained recovery to maintain their ideal performance state, especially in high pressure competitive environment. That ability differentiates the top performers and the good performers. “The Ideal Performance State is the most effective and reliable mental, emotional, and physical state for performing at one’s best.”Loehr said, the trained recovery is a learned response and the way to get there is through toughness training. The central points of Loehr’s toughness training program are emotional discipline and making waves of stress and recovery.