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Brain Rules & Learning

Brain Rules & Learning

26 January, 2016

Neuroscientists have figured out a lot about how the brain works in the time since the MRI was invented 18 years ago. A developmental molecular biologist named John Medina has summarized these findings in his book entitled Brain Rules.

Several of Medina’s rules impact how well an individual learns.

We know for sure that:

  1. Exercise boosts brain power.
  2. Insufficient sleep retards executive function and working memory, as well as mood, quantitative skill, logical reasoning, and motor dexterity. Get your sleep or act stupid.
  3. Emotional stress severely impacts both learning and productivity.

Other rules outline how we humans sense the world.

  1. We are sight mammals to whom pictures mean more than words.
  2. Multiple senses trump single-sense learning.
  3. Mirror neurons: we recognize and imitate.

Yet other rules explain the ingredients of an optimal learning experience. We learn best:

  1. When we are paying attention. Single-mindedly. Emotionally aroused. Happy.
  2. In chunks of no more than 10 minutes. Narrative is powerful.
  3. In short term memory, in the place we’ll apply the lessons, reinforced soon after learning, with elaborate encoding
  4. For long term memory, repetition of this illusion of reality that takes 10 years to fully form

Corporate learning departments have made scant use of these findings. It’s a classic case of paradigm drag: put off the new stuff until the old stuff has been completed. Yet were corporations to embrace the Brain Rules, they would raise their organization’s capacity to learn and also improve the effectiveness of current training efforts.

Mens sana in corpore sano (A sound mind in a sound body) Juvenal
For example, organizations that are serious about raising their collective intelligence should consider putting treadmills and stationary bicycles in their hallways. A little exercise develops your ability to think and learn. Two half-hour rounds of aerobic exercise every week is enough to measurably improve reasoning, attention, and problem-solving skillszx. People who exercise are better at thinking abstractly and innovating by improvising off previously learned material.

Learning is personal
No two brains are the same. They develop at different rates and excel in different subjects. Learning physically changes our brains: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Personalized or flexible instruction is more likely to work than one-size-fits-all instruction. Assigning children to classes by age is ridiculous. Likewise, mixing corporate hot-shots with run-of-the-mill employees may fail.

Pay attention!
You can’t learn very well if you’re not paying attention. Interrupt someone in the middle of a task and it will take them 50% longer to complete it. Furthermore, they’re likely to make 50% more errors. Multitasking is a myth. Put a cell phone in a driver’s hand and they will have as many wrecks as drunk drivers.

Brains work on one thing at a time. If something’s not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem. Irrelevancies distract from the core. That’s one reason it’s a good idea to preface a presentation with an overview: people are less likely to become distracted midway through and let their attention wander.

People learn in small bites interspersed with time for processing and reflection. In business, we often get the ratio wrong: presenting way too much information and leaving insufficient time for processing it.

Most of us can only focus to a stand-up presentation for about 10 minutes. Then we need to go on to something else. Every 10 minutes, the presenter needs to let emotions hi-jack the audience’s attention. Time to inject laughter, sadness, fear, or joy. But the joke or story or whatever must be relevant to the core message, else we risk the distractions of multitasking.

You must remember this
Short-term memory is vital for learning. If a thought doesn’t go through it, it won’t be learned. Our perceptions are encoded in short-term memory. The more elaborate the encoding, the stronger the memory.

Retrieval is better when it takes place in the same surroundings as the original encoding. You’ll remember something better if it’s complex, relevant, in context, and tied to numerous other ideas and concepts. The more you focus on meaning, the more elaborate the encoding. Real-world examples bring out meaning. Examples appeal to our brains’ innate capacity for pattern matching, making for more connections.


Our brains are forever trying to make sense of the world. Imagine that we are of two minds. Our social brain (the brain forms we share with lizards and other mammals) and our logical brain, the foundation of rationality. Eminent neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says it’s as if there’s an interpreter between the two that intervenes between the two brains. Think of the interpreter as perpetually writing its owner’s life-resume, recasting experience and giving it meaning.

The brain strains for consciousness, this feeling of knowing what’s going on. Gazzaniga says that if you threw a rock high into the air and instilled it with consciousness, by the time it fell to earth, it would have a sensible explanation of why it decided to come down.