There are at least three things you can do immediately to help your brain, the most remarkable organ in your body: exercise regularly, sleep well, and lower your stress levels. So says John Medina, a local molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. This book was popular with my superintendent and school principals when I was still working, but I never read it when it was “assigned.” And even now, I haven’t read it with the attention required to understand the roles of different parts of the brain and the astonishing complexity of nerve cells. I also admit to skipping over descriptions of the “phospholipid bilayer, Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, and the cingulate gyrus;” instead, I focused on fascinating stories of people whose brains operated a little differently than most of ours, and thinking about how I might apply some of the 12 rules to my daily life.
First, a few factoids to get your attention and demonstrate how little you probably know about your brain: 1.) Electricity moves through a forest of neurons in the hippocampus “at a blinding 250 miles per hour.” 2.) If you lifted off your cerebral cortex and smoothed it out (don’t try this at home), “it would be about the size of a baby blanket.” 3. While you’re asleep, the neurons in your brain are not at all relaxed, but are performing the equivalent of Zumba aerobics.
Dr. Medina has turned his 12 rules into chapter titles and summarized the key points of each at the end of the chapter. Titles include ones related to the rules I cited above: “Exercise boosts brain power.” “Sleep well, think well.” “Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.” Other chapters talk about how students may improve short and long-term memory; the role of vision — our dominant sense — in learning; the need we have as children to explore and satisfy our curiosity, a trait Medina recommends we sustain in adulthood; and differences between the male and female brain (women, you’ll like this one). One chapter reminds teachers of what students already know: “We don’t pay attention to boring things.”
I learned from the chapter, “Attention,” that listeners tune out after 10 minutes. Since college classes last 50 to 60 minutes, Dr. Medina found a way to hold his students’ interest longer, by introducing an “emotional hook” after each 10-minute lecture. The author used the same kind of hooks in his book as in his lecture, namely, relevant case histories, usually about “some unusual mental pathology.” The first hook for me came on page 22, which was probably 10 minutes into it. “All the evidence points in one direction: Physical activity is cognitive candy.” After reading this, I was ready to jump out of my chair and start moving.
These same hooks kept me pushing through some of the drier sections of the book. The most bizarre story is this: there are about 20 families in the world whose members suffer from Fatal Familial Insomnia. In mid-life, because they can’t sleep, they become psychotic, slip into a coma and die. This anecdote has me meditating, doing deep breathing, and taking whatever actions I can to relieve my somewhat chronic, and I hope non-fatal, insomnia.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned was why it makes no sense to argue with a friend or relative about events that took place in the past. You know the kind of foolish argument I’m talking about. “We saw Paul McCarthy at the Tacoma Dome six years ago.” “No, it was three years ago in Vancouver.” In summing up the chapter on long-term memory, Dr. Medina says, “Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.” It turns out that none of us holds the sole key to what is real.