Principles for surviving & thriving at home, school & work : Brain Rules


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Last week I attended a talk by Professor John Medina from University of Washington. This talk was part of a summit, which focused on creating better learning experiences in our Training and Development programs. Though we covered a lot of areas in the summit like Micro learning, Gamification , Virtual learning , MOOCs etc. The most fascinating part of the day was Learning Sciences talk by Professor John Medina which focused on areas like cognitive science, educational psychology, the genetics of human brain development and psychiatric disorders, how the mind reacts to and organizes information, and how brain science influences the way we teach. He mostly covered these topics from his book Brain Rules . Over the weekend I spent a good time reading his book Brain Rules  that covers 12 Brain rules which he has identified through research. These rules  potentially could improve the learning outcomes for the kids at school or home, or even employees in a corporate settings.
Among the 12 Brain rules called out , 3 of them were well known fact and we know the importance of Exercise, Sleep & Stress avoidance.
Rule 1, 7, 8 : Exercise boosts brain power, Sleep helps in thinking well & Stress reduces our effectiveness and curtails our learning.  Regular and moderate level of exercise  has ton of benefits to health, and we can add now - it improves our thinking and brain power. Sleep is a must, but from the book, I came to know, during sleep we are consolidating the learning we had during waking time. A moderate level of Stress is always good but chronic stress make brain don’t learn the same way.
Rule 2, 3: Survival & Wiring – This was a fascinating part, where he delved on the concept – Theory of Mind. Human beings have great capability of understanding other peoples emotions / mental states and adapting according which has helped in co-existing together as a community. In-fact he calls one of the key reason for our survival in the evolution is this capability.  Also every human brain is wired differently. in the multiple cases he has quoted, the fMRI scans shows clearly that every brain is uniquely wired and they are not wired the same way. So in a learning environment, the more individual connection we have with the teacher/facilitator and the learner creates a better learning outcome.
Rule 4: Attention : This had some very key ideas for teaching. The best thing that gets our attention is Emotions. Our brain has two forms of memory – Declarative memory which focuses on storing facts etc, and episodic memory which focuses on events. The episodic memory stays longer and gets the declarative information stay longer if both are combined.  In a class room we often lose attention after a certain span of time – and our brain needs a emotionally competent stimulus (ECS) regularly to grab attention back, (He called this a Dopamine lollypop during the talk). So adding some very emotionally connecting stories / cases which is coherent to the subject covered could grab attention again for certain amount of time. This reminds me of our Finance professor, he keeps quoting about some real world cases in regular intervals before or after sharing concepts which made us very attentive and improved our learning.  The other concept covered in this area is – our Brain processes meaning before details. This goes back to the evolution, our Brain looks for these 3 top questions first – Will this eat me / Can I eat this, Can I mate / will it mate, Have I seen this earlier?.  We can use these 3 questions to create the ECS and grab attention.   The well known and other important key aspect he calls out is the inability of the brain to multitask , and it can only sequentially process, and cost of switching to brain reduces our learning ability. Giving sufficient break is also must to improve learning outcomes.
Rule 5, 6 : Short Term & Long Term Memory : Almost 90% of the things we read , are forgotten over a period of time. So repetition is key to remember things. But our current classroom setting is an overload of information for a continuous 6-8 hours which has a very low learning.  One of the key counter intuitive fact to know were – The more the information and meaning the better the learning. The more details should ideally be resulting in a lot of effort to the brain to remember, but if the more details are around a central fact or core idea, the core idea stays longer in our memory. Incorporate new information to learners gradually and repeat them at regular intervals. This reminds me my teacher in K-12, who used to make us do repeated oral tests to ensure we remember and also created fascinating stories and funny acts for us to remember the core concepts. I still remember the concepts which he taught in Physics and chemistry well, because of the vivid images and stories he created in our mind. Environment and context helps us to remember something easily on reproducing the same environment. I remember doing my mathematics practice test in school classroom similar to the board exam timed and with similar sheets. When I went to the exam it did not look like I could remember pretty much most of them I read.
Rule 9, 10 : Sensory Information & Vision : This is another counter intuitive fact about brain – the more information about a fact makes it easier to remember than lesser information – same way if you create more sensory data for a core concept, it is easy to remember and recollect for the brain. The senses could be vision, auditory or olfactory. So in learning environment we should use all forms of learning and not just dry text books with only passages. A picture is worth more than 1000 words, and our Vision trumps all other senses. If we make the information visually appealing it is easier to remember and recollect for the brain.
Rule 11: Gender Male and Female brains are different , structurally and biochemically. So they do respond to situations differently as well. In an acute stress, women remember the emotional details and react differently, and men only get the gist and react differently. This is an interesting fact, as we have never explored how learning is impacted because of this difference when men and women are together in the classroom. Of course in work setting we know the problems of inclusion very well and every company has understood the importance and working on it, and it makes sense we should focus the gender diversity and how do we handle this in learning environment that leads to better learning outcomes for both men and women.
Rule 12 : Exploration  We learn by observation, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion right from our childhood. Specific parts of the brain allow this approach, where we keep revising our hypothesis. Our exploration and learning does not support, the brain supports lifelong learning and adult brains do create neurons and learn new things throughout if we really focus our efforts to it.
The last line is key for me, and I would want to be a life long learner and it was reassuring for me. Seeking wisdom and life long learning are something which I enjoy the most. Overall this a good read for people who are in the learning and development space as it talks about how we can use the brain rules to change our pedagogy and improve learning outcomes.


  1. Good Article, wondering if you know any books for parents to educate understanding their children interests etc.

  2. Good Article, wondering if you know any books for parents to educate understanding their children interests etc.

  3. Hi Phani,

    Thank you very much. I have not read a lot of books in this area. But you can definitely give this book a try : The Whole-brain Child by Daniel Siegel. If your child is less than 5, you can also read Brain rules for Babies by John Medina,

    Regards, Hari


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