Boot camp for the brain

We spend a lot of time worrying about protecting our brains for the future — but what using them to their best advantage right now? According to molecular biologist and author Dr. John Medina, many of the things we do each day — like multi-tasking at work and packing our kids’ days full of structured activities — don’t make us any smarter, faster or better. In fact, our well-meaning intentions are often counterproductive.

So what’s behind this disconnect between the way things should be and they way they’re actually done? The truth is that many people don’t know enough about how the brain works or how to make the best of it. In his book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Medina sets out to challenge the status quo and show people how to use their brains to be more productive. Each of the twelve chapters focuses on a different “brain rule” — a principle based on what research has already proven about the way our brains function.

Here are some tips based on Medina’s brain rules to help whip your brain into shape:

Get up and move

Sitting in front of your desk or at your computer for more hours each day isn’t necessarily going to make you a better worker — but integrating exercise into your daily routine will. According to Medina, there’s a direct link between exercise and brain power. It doesn’t take a lot — exercising two or three days a week is enough for the brain to benefit and to start improving those crucial executive functions. Even something as simple as a brisk walk at lunch will help improve problem solving skills, reasoning and focus.

If you need one more reason to motive yourself to get more exercise, add this to the list: We think better when we’re physically active.

Attend to your relationships

Medina’s second rule — Survival — reminds us that our brains (not just our bodies) can adapt and evolve. It’s not just problem solving skills and learning from our mistakes that’s important. Medina argues that our ability to work together and forge alliances with others is crucial for our survival. Forming and maintaining good relationships, and making an effort to understand others, is as important at the office, classroom and community as it was in the jungle.

On the other hand, relationships that aren’t working — like workers who don’t feel safe with their bosses, or students who feel their teacher don’t understand them — mean people won’t perform as well and they risk becoming isolated.

Work with your wiring

Every brain is different — but we usually treat our students, employees and customers the same way. You’ve likely heard of “multiple intelligences” (all the different ways people are smart), but Medina posits that there are actually seven billion “intelligences” — one for each person on the planet. We can either recognize the differences and work with them, or continue to ignore them.

Take the school system, for example. Grades are based on age, but the system ignores that each student’s brain develops differently (just like their bodies). Our assumptions put many students at a disadvantage.

Businesses, however, are getting wise to the trend. You’ve probably noticed that more online businesses like Amazon are providing customized pages that show you things like recently viewed items and recommendations. The bottom line: Pay attention to the differences if you want to connect with people. Target the niche.

Focus on one thing at a time

Still think doing more than one thing at once is an efficient way to work? Think again. Medina’s chapter on attention debunks that myth. The brain simply can’t handle more than one high-level task at a time – instead, it switches rapidly back and forth between demands. This constant change means our attention gets disrupted, and it takes us longer to do things than it should. Worse yet, we’ll make more mistakes. The best way to tackle tasks is one at a time.

And if you’re still talking on your cell phone while driving, you might as well be driving drunk. Seconds matter when it comes to avoiding decisions, and cell phone talkers have been proven to have slower reactions.

Repeat to remember

Want to remember something longer than the 30 seconds your brain will hold it? Medina says you’ll have to repeat it to keep it in your head. The information you learn in a class or meeting isn’t going to stay around for long if you don’t re-expose yourself to the information.

If names and faces don’t easily stick in your mind, try Medina’s advice: help the memory “encode” by adding more information and repeating it to yourself. For instance, when you meet new people, remember a detail about them (like the colour they are wearing) and tie that detail to something else (“that’s my favourite colour”).

Remember to repeat

But what about our long term memory? Medina’s got some advice for improving that too. Our brain is programmed to “forget” things in order to prioritize information. If you want to retain something in the long term, then remember to repeat it.

For students, this means reviewing their lessons later that day, and each day afterwards too — not just cramming before the big test. (The book outlines specific intervals for optimal remembering, like reviewing notes 90 to 120 minutes later). Employees can use the same tactic to stay on top of things at work.

Sleep on it

You’ve heard it before, but Medina offers hard proof: Your brain needs sleep to “recharge” and to learn. No, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to fall asleep in class or at your desk, but get a full night’s sleep. In order to think well, you need to sleep well.

And if you feel like you’re drowsy at 3:00 pm, give in to the urge to nap. For most people, that’s the 12 hour mark from the midpoint of your sleep. It’s the worst time to schedule meetings or do other important tasks. A quick nap of about 26 minutes has been found to improve performance by 34 per cent – you won’t enjoy those results from a cup of coffee.

Reduce stress

Our brains aren’t made for the long term stress we endure on a daily basis, or the highly-structured environments we have to function in. Ideally, it’s good for about 30 seconds — long enough for that fight or flight instinct to kick in. However, today’s threats are often things we can’t easily run away from, like a bad boss or an unhappy marriage, and the brain suffers in the long run. We either take steps to reduce stress, or we’ll see a reduction in everything else — like executive functions, motor skills, sleep, mood and our immune system.

We’re not as good at compartmentalizing as we think: The stress we have at work spills over into our home life, and vice versa. As Medina notes, “we’ve only got one brain”.

Stimulate your senses

There’s a good reason why Medina dedicates a whole chapter to sensory integration: we’ve got five senses and the more of them that are engaged, the better. We learn better in multi-sensory environments and see an increase in our ability to recall things in the long run. For instance, smell is particularly effective at evoking memory, but it’s also good for business. (The blast of coffee smell you get walking into a coffee shop isn’t an accident).

If you want to engage others — particularly students and customers — you’ll want to read up on this rule.

Use visuals more effectively

Medina points out something we often forget: “Vision trumps all other senses.” Our brain is better at reading pictures than text, and if we see a picture while listening to information you’ll recall much more of it later. Visuals affect how we read, interpret and perceive information.

However, this is one area where businesses are getting things wrong, especially when it comes those ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations. If you want to keep people’s attention and leave a lasting impression, trash those text-heavy, point-by-point slides and focus on visual ways of presenting information — like graphs and pictures.

Team up the gender differences

This chapter may seem like a no-brainer with all of the books, articles and information out there about how male and female brains function differently. However, many people still haven’t figured out how to partner these differences for effective teamwork. It all ties back to acknowledging the fact that our brains are wired differently, and working with those differences rather than trying to change them.

For instance, in stressful situations men tend to focus on the “gist” of the situation while women tend to focus on the details. These two viewpoints combined offer a more complete picture. Likewise, men and women process emotions differently. The point isn’t to box people into gender roles, but to allow the differences to complement each other both in relationships and the workplace.

Take time to explore

We can’t help but be fascinated by babies. They learn by exploring, touching, watching and experimenting. Medina argues that even though we’re “stuffed” into cubicles and classrooms, we never really lose this desire to explore. He describes humans as “powerful and natural explorers” — and advocates we should indulge rather than suppress this urge.

How? By giving ourselves, our students and employees time to explore what’s on their mind rather than structuring a day full of activities. We need time to be curious and to try new things. If we can’t get this from work or school, then we need to give ourselves free time outside of those institutions. Planning every moment of our free time or our children’s time isn’t doing anyone any favours.

More information
Medina’s book and accompanying DVD are available through most major book sellers. However, in keeping with his own rules about sensory integration and using visuals, the Brain Rules empire has extended into cyberspace. Here’s where you can find more information:

Brain Rules website has more information about the book and the rules. Look for the supplementary chapter summaries and supplementary information — like presentations, videos and audio.
Brain Rules Blog includes interesting tidbits and the latest research.
Brain Rules Videos (YouTube) are short films that explore a concept from each of the chapters.

Photo © julien Tromeur

Viagra for the brain
Boost brainpower in the workplace
Coffee perks up memory