Brain Rules

Some years ago, Atlantic Monthly published an article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”  In it, Nicholas Carr made a compelling case that the internet is having a far more profound effect on our thinking than any of us realize.  Skimming from one idea to another has the potential of remapping our neural circuitry.  We are losing the ability to have a sustained thought. As he put it, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.” To put it another way, we are at risk of turning into pancake people, spread wide and thin, as we connect with the vast network of information accessed by the touch of a button.

Assuming this to be true, it is in our interest to become more and more aware of how the brain actually works.  Thankfully, an increasing number of books are being published on the brain, including John Medina’s Brain Rules. His goal is to give the reader twelve rules, twelve insights as to how the brain works. Here are a few that are particularly helpful, especially if we hope our brains will work at maximum efficiency.

1. The power of the intellect is tied directly to physical exercise

Because exercise regulates the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, a lifestyle devoted to fitness physically can elevate cognitive performance. In fact, one’s risk for general dementia is cut in half if one is in the regular habit of swimming, biking, weightlifting, etc. The brain itself acts like a muscle.  Some parts of the brain stay as malleable as a baby’s brain, so we can grow new connections, create new neurons, enabling us to become lifelong learners, life long explorers. Hence, the more activity one does the larger and more complex the brain becomes. 

2. The brain does not put up with boring lectures

or anything else that leads to dullness. At best, presenters have ten minutes to sustain interest–600 seconds to keep one’s attention. And then, wakefulness quickly wanes. The brain demands that we engage interest again. So keep core concepts to ten minutes, always giving meaning before details.  If a lecturer fails to tell people where he/she is going, and what it all means, the audience is forced to listen to the instructor while attempting to figure out how it all fits.  This amounts to multi-tasking, which the brain is not equipped to do very well. So keep the listener focused, with clear direction and meaning, and know that at 9:59 into your talk, attention is about to plummet to near zero.  What’s necessary are “hooks”, something that triggers the emotion or something that is relevant, connected to the end of the first ten minutes or as introduction to the next ten minutes.

3. The brain’s memory system requires repetition to remember

Here’s something encouraging to all teachers—people usually forget 90% of what they learn in a class within 30 days. It gets worse.  For those of us who preach, the majority of this forgetting occurs within the first few hours (possibly minutes). Our assumption is that people are like recording devices.  They push the record button, than play back what they have learned. A more accurate metaphor is a blender.  The brain is like a Vitamix machine left running with the lid off. Information enters, is sliced into pieces, and splattered all over the insides of our minds. Some memories hang around a few moments, and then vanish (I am finding this with increasing frequency). Other memories have a longer life span. Repetition is a key to memory persisting in the brain.  Repeating information in timed intervals helps stabilize memory. But it is more. We must present information so compelling, so meaningful, so personal that the hearer engages in deep encoding of what has been taught.

4. Our respect for the health of the brain is directly tied to our respect for sleep

It is possible to become dysfunctional by having not enough sleep. Our biggest problem in our culture is a lack of sleep, and sleep loss equals brain drain. Studies indicate that not getting enough sleep cripples learning, hurts attention, memory, logical reasoning, not to mention motor skills.  Sleep can actually improve learning, for the brain actually learns while we are sleeping. Strange as it seems, some kind of offline processing occurs, that only occurs when the exterior world is shut off for a time.  The reality is, the brain never sleeps (my dreams tell me this—they seem to be the moments the brain enters into extreme freefall).

5. Stress can do irreparable damage to the brain

  Some kinds of stress actually aid in learning, but certain types hurt it.  Stress that is ongoing for days, even months, builds up hormones that are given free access to the central nervous system.  Stress hormones can eventually disconnect neural networks.  Ongoing stress can ultimately lead to strokes.

6. The brain loves multisensory information

Students learn better from words and pictures than words alone.  We know this already, but here’s what we may not know.  Students learn better when words are pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively, when words and pictures are close to each other, and extraneous material is excluded.  The brain loves learning that takes advantage of smell (which has an unusual power to bring back memory), learning that is both auditory and visual (vision trumps all other senses), and learning that is kinesthetic.

Back to Google.  How we treat the brain and use the brain have profound implications for future cranial performance. And for some of us, we will need all of the help we can get.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

3 thoughts on “Brain Rules

  1. Have you read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”? He has some good insights into the effects of image-based media upon the brain, in general thought processes, and specifically in learning. His contention is basically that all image-based media, whatever the intended purpose, is essentially geared to entertain, and to teach. He would argue that the average attention span used to be much longer than 10 minutes, and the ability to hold abstract thoughts in the mind, to analyze them, and to form useful opinions about them has seriously degenerated in our culture with the advent of using pictures along with and now instead of, the written or spoken word. I didn’t agree with him on every point, but I do think that all TV shows and nearly all internet media is engineered to entertain the senses while doing very little to give the mind any real, context-laden, actionable information. Most of what we get has very little, if anything, to do with our lives, and is usually free of context, and leaves us feeling informed but useless. Just some thoughts.

    Nate Glazebrook

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