Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina (Pear Press, 320 pages) is a highly readable guide to using the latest neuroscience research to improve your life and work. Medina’s prose never overwhelms the lay reader with jargon but still manages to convey the scientific underpinnings of his recommended strategies for enhancing learning, health, memory, and more.
The book follows a simple format – each chapter is a “Brain Rule.” Medina begins by defining what we know about a particular aspect of the brain, and then suggests strategies based on that knowledge that will help our everyday lives. For example, Brain Rule #7 is “Sleep Well, Think Well.” Medina describes findings on the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation (30% drop in cognitive ability from losing one night’s sleep), the real differences between morning people (“larks”) and night people (“owls”), the biological basis for the siesta, and more. He presents the findings of one study that showed problem-solving ability was tripled by an eight-hour sleep when subjects were tested twelve hours after they were given instruction on the problem. Recommendations include napping as needed, particularly in the afternoon “nap zone” when many of us feel sleepy. NASA tests showed that a 26 minute nap improved pilot performance by a third, while a 45-minute nap boosted cognitive performance by a similar amount.
Medina’s chapter on Sensory Integration has particular significance for marketers and neuromarketing aficionados. Rule #9 is “Stimulate More of the Senses,” and a portion of that chapter is devoted to sensory marketing. He describes a retail experiment in which vanilla scent was introduced into a women’s department, while the men’s department was treated with rose maroc, a spicy fragrance thought to appeal to men. Sales doubled in both departments, but fell below average when the scents were reversed. In another test, chocolate sales in a vending machine increased by 50% when a chocolate aroma was emitted.
Think you are a great multi-tasker? Think again. In his chapter on attention (Rule #4: We Don’t Pay Attention to Boring Things), Medina explains why true multitasking is impossible, at least as far as our attention goes. The brain can really focus on only one thing at a time. Dealing with, say, an instant message while you are writing a business memo requires an active disengagement process from the memo and then a new engagement process with the instant message. Not only does each switch take several tenths of a second, but resuming the previous task requires the brain to determine where it left off. Medina cites research showing that an interrupted task takes 50% longer to complete, and with an error rate up to 50% higher.
Other chapters deal with exercise and the brain, short and long-term memory, stress, vision, and gender. The book comes with a DVD that contains a few minutes of video content for each rule as well as some bonus videos. Watching these brief videos isn’t a substitute for reading the book, but might be handy for non-readers or even kids. Here’s a brief clip that illustrates their simple language and amusing, if not quite Spielberg-quality, production:
More videos from the book can be seen at YouTube.
One endorsement of the business world implications of the book comes from the Harvard Business Review, who named Medina’s thinking on exercise in the workplace as a “Breakthrough Idea for 2008.”
I highly recommend Brain Rules for anyone who wants to apply simple truths about how our brains work to life, learning, and business. This book is written to be fun and accessible, but Medina has demanded scientific rigor in his research examples. Clearly, Medina has applied a few of his rules in creating this lively, readable, and practical book.