Developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina talks about his new book, Brain Rules. Learn about the need for exercise, attention-grabbing events, and our inability to multitask.
- Brain Rules website (Contains references and video samples from the DVD)
- Brain Rules book (Amazon affiliate link)
See also Part II.
Interviewed by Geoffrey Grosenbach
Geoffrey: It’s the Ruby on Rails podcast. I’m Geoffrey Grosenbach. It’s February 29, 2008, show number 68. It’s a very special two-part interview starting today, with Dr. John Medina, developmental molecular biologist. He recently wrote a book called Brain Rules, talking about his research about the brain, how we thing, how our minds work. I thought it would be very interesting. It turned out to be entertaining, humorous, and quite informative. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
I’d like to thank Atlantic Dominion Solutions, a new sponsor of the Rails Podcast. ADS is a web development innovator that specializes in building user-focused Rails applications, and enhancing their performance with Amazon Web Services.
Your book, Brain Rules: Twelve Principles for Surviving, Thriving at Work, Home, and School. What is it about, and why did you write it?
John: It literally began as a thought experiment. I tried to imagine what would a learning environment, like a classroom, or a business, if you were to re-engineer it along the lines of our more modern understanding of how a brain actually process information, what would that look like? What would you come up with?
I immediately ran into a roadblock, Geoff, because we’re only in the beginning stages of understanding how the brain actually works. We don’t know squat. I don’t know how you – for those of you listening at home, he just picked up a glass of water and drank it. We have no idea how he does that.
If you stick your tongue out at a baby and they’re forty-two minutes old, or thirty-minutes old, what does a baby do? Do you know?
Geoffrey: Sticks their tongue back out at you.
John: Stick’s its tongue back out at you. If you think about that for a nanosecond, that’s amazing! It’s never seen a tongue before, not yours, not its. What has it seen for nine months? It’s seen this bloody, kind of pinkish gauze, with a diaphragm pushing down on it, compressing and rarefacting it for nine months, yet, right out of the box, forgive me, it has the ability to understand that it has a tongue, that you have a tongue; knows that if it orders a series of nerves in a very particular sequence, beginning in the back of the brain and then marching forward to the jaw, can do the same thing. We have no idea how they do it.
We’ve known since 1979 that they can do it. We have no idea how they do it. We don’t know how they poop, how they pee, how they learn to control how they poop and pee. And, we don’t know about your glass of water experiment, now that you are twenty or thirty years outside of that age group.
If you wanted to design a learning environment that was the exact opposite of what the brain was good at doing, you would design something like a classroom, like you see in the traditional American system. If you wanted to design a business that was exactly, directly opposed to what that performance was good at doing, you would design a cubicle. If you wanted to re-engineer the place so that you could take advantage of our more modern understanding of how the brain actually supplies and processes information, you would have to start over. Starting over, is what that thing is all about. That’s why I wrote it.
Geoffrey: I was a little shocked in here. You just said right now that the human body and brain was not made to sit at a desk and stare at a computer all day. Are you trying to put me out of a job?
John: Well, I’d try to get your butt on a treadmill, just like I was before you came in here and interrupted me. [laughs] Take a look; if we were to re-engineer, to take your very good comment seriously, actually, and you could blow it all up and start if all over again, one of the first things I would come up with is this: you can take a bunch of sedentary Japanese fourth-graders, who are used to playing their video game machines, or you can take a bunch of sedentary, fat, American fourth-graders, always used to playing with their video machines, and exercise the heck out of them. If you exercise them, by heck, I do mean three times a week, with an aerobic exposure of thirty-minutes per exercise time. It’s just not all that much. Do it for four months. You can see anywhere between an 80-120% increase in their executive function.
Executive function is very important in the brain. You use it all the time when you’re problem solving in software, if you’re writing something, you are making hierarchical decisions about what it is you’re going to write down. It’s also very important in impulse control. If you get freaked out, your ability to settle back down is a measure of executive function.
If you do that, you can boost that anywhere from 80-120%. In these experiments that were done with the Japanese, if you then extract the exercise after you’ve gotten them into shape, and measure their cognitive panels post, you begin to see they have fluttered back down to where they were before they started the exercise. You literally can turn on and off, specific types of cognitive function, like a flashlight.
If you want to re-engineer it, here’s an idea. There should be school uniforms. Do you know what the school uniform should be? They should be gym clothes. When you get to school, you get on a treadmill and you exercise for a period of time, and then you can begin the learning process. There’s even some information which suggest that at the moment of learning, if you are aerobically exercising, your ability to remember certain things is anywhere between 20-25% greater than if you were just seated there in a classroom, or a fricking cubicle, trying to get a piece of information into your head!
If you want to tear down and start it all over, do you know what you would do? You’d turn all of the schools into this giant gym, and everybody would be exercising the whole time. There, that’s for starters.
Geoffrey: That would be good news for sellers of trampolines and treadmills.
John: That’s why I got one. In fact, I don’t think there should be a desk. I think there should be a treadmill that you mount your laptop on. While your answering your email, you’re working your femoral muscles. Just walking 1.82 miles an hour, doing – You know, Richard [5:57.4], who is a terrific paleoanthropologist, has estimated, and there’s good reason to believe it, that we were, for millions of years, our ancestors were walking anywhere between twelve and fifteen miles per day. Most of us, this thing grew up and became this nice, beautiful mushroom of a brain, under conditions – there’s the performance envelope – of near constant motion.
If you began to take brain science seriously, all of a sudden, I could write a book like this. I could say we still don’t know squat about how the brain processes information. But, the little that we do know suggests that the systems we’ve designed to inculcate information into our head, needs some vast retooling. You could start with exercise. I do. [laughs]
Geoffrey: You also said that every ten minutes we need some kind of stimulation to keep out brain up and attentive, and to get us back in the motion.
John: I didn’t say that, but there is some data that do. That’s not trivial. The data needs to be explored. I’m a professor at two universities, so I do a fair amount of teaching. What you could show is about – you could ask this question. Let me ask you, Geoff. I know we’re in an interview, but let me ask it anyway. In a typical class you’re not thrilled with, but you’re not bored to tears with either, just a normal class, how long was it typically, in the classroom, before you started looking at the clock wondering when this thing was going to be over?
Geoffrey: I think I was probably too asleep to remember what time it was at that point, or calculate based on the time the class started.
John: Well, for those of your awake colleagues, they will almost always typically report about ten minutes. At about ten minutes, their attention has gone down. If you graph it when it’s gone way, way down, every once in a while it will spike up, because people are looking around, maybe there’s a test, maybe they need to pay attention. There’s this tug-of-war. All of a sudden, at the very end, it kind of goes back up a little bit. How that is often interpreted is that the students are going, “Yippee! This painful experience is almost over. I can get out of here, get outta Dodge.”
If you have a fifty-minute class period, and your attention is essentially zeroed out at ten minutes, which is an 80% failure rate. If that was a business, that’s failure. So, the question is, the Brain Rules is real simple. People don’t pay attention to boring things. That’s the bottom line. You can actually show the more you attend to something, the more you think something is interesting; if you have heard a song before, that you’ve loved, do you not play it again in your head? Of course you do, and the reason why is you like it. You are attending to it. But you begin to set up repetition cycles. The more you are interesting in something, the more likely you are to re-attend to it; we call it ‘rehearsal’. The more you are to rehearse it in your brain.
The less you pay attention to something, the less likely you are to rehearse. We haven’t talked about this brain rule, but memory is not fixed at the moment of learning. It’s not. It requires active repetition cycles in specific timed-events, in order to inculcate it, to bring it up into your brain, so you are actually processing it.
One of the reasons why, if you are interested in something, you learn something better, is simply because you are licking it like a lollipop, “Yeah, I like that, yeah, I like that.”
Here’s the ten-minute rule. I would ask my students, because I teach anywhere from medical students to bioengineering graduate students, and occasionally undergraduates here, although I’m here mostly for research purposes. I ask all my classes, “What time do you start looking at the clock?” Do you know what the answer is? When they’re awake, “It’s ten minutes.”
What I did, and this is actually a model that won an award. I actually think the award selection committee was drunk when they gave it to me, because it’s not an award I believe in. [laughs] But, they gave me a national teaching award. As a private consultant researcher, I have a national teaching award.
All I did, Geoff, is that every nine or ten minutes, I stopped the information stream. I gave them what I like to call, “an emotionally competent stimulus.” I should probably unpack that a little bit. The question you can’t ask, if the brain is not paying attention to boring declarative streams and doesn’t want it, and you only have about ten minutes before it’s zeroed out, is there a way you could bring it back? Could you bring it back? Is there something you can do?
The question you can ask is, “What, pray, does the brain pay attention to?” The brain pays attention to three things: You can ask it as an evolutionary question. Actually, It’s straight Darwinian scaffolding. Here it is; it’s a series of questions. “Can I eat it? Will it eat me?” We pay tons of attention if we think something is threatening. Another one is, “Can I mate with it; will it mate with me?” We pay tons of attention if we think there is reproductive opportunity. The third one, and I think it’s interesting; it doesn’t happen in any priority, so it’s funny that it just sticks up. You can see it. “Have I seen it before?” If you think you’ve seen it before, we’re terrific pattern [11:10.9] as it turns out. If you think you’ve seen it before, you’ll attend to it. You’ll go, “Oh, maybe that was something … this has been repeated in this firmament. Maybe I should look at it.”
What I would do is that every ten minutes, I would stop and give an emotionally competent stimulus, which was on one of those three things. You have to be careful, especially if you’re talking about mating. What you can talk about is humor and pleasure. Those are directly related to the same types of system s we use to assess reproductive opportunity – pleasure. We use those. You could also do a threat. I could show you one threatening story.
I work a lot with psychiatric disorders. Most of my consulting life has been spent looking at issues of mental health. We can talk about any number of psychiatric disorders, or stroke patients. I’ll give you an example of one.
There is a woman, her name is Ingrid. That’s a research name, that’s not her actual name. She has an amazing stroke in an area of her brain that processes motion. She no longer can see things that move. Do you know what she sees when something is moving? She sees isolated, strobe-like snapshots of things, if they’re coming towards here, progressively getting larger and larger. But, she cannot connect them. The reason why that can be threatening is because she can’t walk out on the street. She doesn’t know if a car is coming at her. She can’t see it. It’s dangerous. She cannot look at somebody when they’re speaking because she cannot connect lip movement; there is no movement, with the speech itself. In an older memory before she had this stroke, it reminds her of looking at badly dubbed Japanese movies. [sounds ?]
Geoffrey: Without the subtitles.
John: If that is repeated, and somebody is actually talking to you, but it’s subtitled like that, it will freak you out. You’ll move away. I have to ask you a question, Geoff. Do I have your attention?
Geoffrey: Yes, you do. Listening to you, I notice myself kind of down and up, and okay, am I listening to the cars, am I listening to the fan? Okay, back to what you’re saying. I mean, it’s interesting. But I can observe that same thing for myself, right now.
John: The more I can give an emotionally competent stimulus, the more likely I am to hold your attention. The less I can give it, the less likely. What I did, what the model won, is that every ten minutes I stopped the information stream, and give them a hook. I don’t believe in entertainment. If you want entertainment, watch a movie. I believe in engagement. If you want to learn something, and my God, we need to learn things, you’re going to have to take space pieces of information and then give an emotionally competent stimulus, I think. Anyway, that’s the brain rule. That’s the answer to your ten minute…
Geoffrey: Computer programmers spend a lot of time in meetings, giving presentations, listening to presentations. I’d like to think that everything I say is engaging, interesting, and informative. Should I make the rest of it a little more boring, or …
John: Most people don’t know when they’re boring. It’s interesting. Most people give way too much information. So, I don’t think you know. I hope your engaging. You look lovely, you’re engaging me very nicely. Your eyebrows are opening up. You’re still a little freaked out that I was putting on my pants when I came in here. There are all kinds of reasons to suspect you might be attending. But, whether you’re actually attending or not is actually kind of an open question.
Most of the time, people pay most of the attention to the interior parts of their mental life, and only come up for air occasionally. Really, Geoff, even though you’re being sweet about it, you’re only sampling me. You come up for air and listen to what I’m saying and try to reframe a question, or maybe you’re going out there and coming back again. The only thing I’m can do; I’m going to pound on this table so watch this. If I do that, all of a sudden I have you. That’s a threat. Did you see? Now, you’re back.
Geoffrey: There’s the physical reaction too, a little adrenaline. I need to pay attention over here.
John: Exactly – ‘Will it eat me? Can I eat it?” If you are a heterosexual, and I’m a female, and I’m just putting on my pants, you’re going to pay all kinds of attention to this. It’s now a mating response. Interestingly enough, if you think you’ve seen something like this before, and this is one I don’t think people figure out very well, if you think you’ve seen it before, you’ll attend to it. You’ll start going, “I [15:17.8] pattern-match off that.” I would imagine that if you’re writing software code, or maybe trouble shooting it, maybe you’re starting to look for problem solving, and you’re matching it against, maybe, an archetype that says, “This is what it should look like.” And you’re going to look at what it does look like, if you can find a disparity between the two, then you win.
Geoffrey: I want to get back to the book, but this is way out in left field. At a conference after hours, I sat in on a conversation between people about the way the brain works, and the way computers work. Internally, the way computer processors are formed, and it’s almost like we’ve hit a wall with computer processors. They’re not getting faster, so now we add more of them. Even my laptop has two processors. Some computers have eight or whatever.
In some understandings, maybe the brain works that way as well, to where we’ve got all these things happening at once – subconscious, conscious. If you were going to design an ideal processing machine, would you use the brain as an example, or do you think there would be better ways, if we were going to redesign the brain?
John: First, we need to get the computer metaphors out. Destroy them; they’re mythologies. The brain doesn’t work anything like a computer. The brain doesn’t work like anything we know. To be able to have a metaphor or analogy that says, “Okay, we’re going to make it like…” What I’ve seen is that with the progression of the physical-technical, usually in an engineering metaphor, people re-metaphor the brain.
In the old days, when we had wires, the brain was ‘wired-up’. Then all of a sudden, we had one microchip, and now it’s ‘micro-chipped’. Now we’ve got several, so people are thinking ‘network distributed’. You can take your pick of the metaphors.
I will tell you none of them work for the brain. The little that we know about the brain – I’ll give you the best metaphor that I can think of for information processing. You won’t like it. It’s a food processor. [laughter] Let me unpack that a little bit. The reason why I’m telling you it works like nothing that you think. We don’t have a metaphor for it. We know too little. Quite frankly, the folks who begin limiting their ability to understand how it actually works, simply by confining it to a metaphor, because then they have to make predictions based upon their metaphor, as opposed to what the thing actually is.
I’ll give a good example for this food processor quip. When a piece of information comes into your head, the best I can tell you is you’ll take a piece of visual information, like this lamp over here, and for those of you listening at home, we’re looking at a lamp that is a big fat vertical rod with a pyramid inverted on the top. It has colors in it. There are some circles in there, a few spheres.
What is happening right now, Geoff, as you’re looking at that thing, is you’re physically tearing out the vertical lines, from the circles, from the colors, and whirring it around in your brain and busy slamming it and spattering these various parts, to widely distributed areas of the brain. There is an area that processes circles, and the circles are going in there. There are areas that process vertical lines, and there are areas that process forty-five degree lines, and they’re stored in different places of the brain. The various frequencies of light that are coming into your eyes are all being spattered out and placed in different areas of the brain. That’s what I mean by a food processor.
Let me give you a great example. You can look at stroke patients who have this. Maybe I can give two examples. It’s one of the most extraordinary of the stroke patients I know of, that really represents this. It was written about in the Journal of Nature. Here’s what she comes across with. She does not have the ability, if she writes down a word, she no longer can put the vowels in them. If she were to write down the word ‘vowels’, she would go ‘v – w – ls’. She can’t put the vowels in.
Geoffrey: So, there’s a logic to it, but it’s missing.
John: What’s extraordinary about that, is this. First of all, the logic is there is no such thing as vowels and consonants in nature. We just made that up from a language perspective. They are simply compressions and rarefactions and patterns of those compressions and rarefactions coming into our ears, but our brain is such a sophisticated, adaptive machine, there’s one of the reasons why the computer metaphors fall away, not only adaptive as a machine, but the ability to take and categorize it, based on artificial constraints, such that you could put the vowels in one place and the consonants in another, and you could get a stroke that can clip the ability to…
Yes, but if you go deeper into that stroke, you see something more extraordinary. She still has the space. She knows where the vowel is supposed to go, which means she separated out the space where a vowel should go, from the fact of the vowel itself? That is an ostrasizer. There is no metaphor for that. None. We don’t understand it.
Geoffrey: One of the things you also talk about is multi-tasking… [20:02.9 over speak]
John: You’re a philosophy major. You can handle it.
Geoffrey: I have to think of that in the fact that you said our brains are not good at multi-tasking. You said this heretical statement that we should turn the internet off, in order to get work done. Yet, my heart’s beating and I’m waving my hand, talking, and things are happening all at once. Why aren’t we good at multi-tasking?
John: This is such a contradiction. You should not buy my book because it’s filled with this giant tectonic fault through it. How can I reconcile such a thing? [laughs] Offended, because I’m also going to tell you to turn off your cell phone when you’re driving, for almost exactly the same reason.
Alright, let’s go through it. At one level, you multi-task just fine. You’re looking at me and drinking a glass of water again, and holding this thing. You’re doing all three things all at once, so yeah, you can multi-task just fine. If you’re a piano player, the left hand isn’t necessarily doing what the right hand is doing. Both are happening simultaneously, and that sounds like multi-tasking to me. You can walk and chew gum at the same time. At one level, the brain looks like it can multi-task. On one level, it can.
But, at the level of the attentional spotlight, the workspace of the brain, where most things actually get done, we are not a multi-tasker. We are a sequential processor. A real good example of that is I will ask you to start reading from my book, and then I’m going to start spitting at you. I promise I won’t do it. You’ll start paying attention to the spit, but you will not be able to pay attention to my spit and read that book at the same time. You can’t do it. You’ll attend to one, or you’ll attend to the other, or you’ll flip back and forth between the two. You cannot do the same thing together. That’s true with almost anything you try.
The best way I can think of it, for those people who feel like they can multi-task, you can grow up in environments where you have seventeen windows open on the computer at the same time, and you’ve got your cell phone on. What you can show is that actually people aren’t multi-tasking. They’re doing single, but they often have terrific ‘working memories’, so they can virtually hold things in a buffer for a period of time. But, even within the buffer, they’re always attending the single.
There’s a good metaphor for this. I date myself. I have no hope that you will understand who Ed Sullivan was. Do you know who Ed Sullivan was?
Geoffrey: Wasn’t he on Johnny Carson, or is that completely different?
John: He had his own show. If you knew him at all, it’s because he brought the Beatles over and showed them the first in 1964, at the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s the same show the Doors were on, or the Rolling Stones were on. Remember, Elvis’ gyrations? That’s one show, the Ed Sullivan Show.
You get these on YouTube. They’re just hysterical to look at. The Rolling Stones had to change a lyric, “let’s spend some time together,” as opposed to “let’s spend the night together,” because it was racy. That’s the Ed Sullivan Show.
He used to have these ‘stupid human tricks’, where you would get these strange circus acts. He would bring them on and they would do their act. One of the most interesting, I bet you’ve seen these, there would be a bunch of vertical dowel rods, maybe a meter or two meters high, and you put a dish on them and spin it. The rotation of the dish will hold the center of gravity. The whole idea is that the more dishes he puts on, you’re looking at him because he’s having to spin these rods. They’re not motorized so he has to provide the torque each time. When one will wobble, he’ll go.
That’s a great metaphor for the attentional spotlight. You can hold many different dishes, but you have attend to each dowel rod. He doesn’t have ten arms. If he had ten arms, he could do them simultaneously. If the brain could truly multi-task, you could do those simultaneously. But, if you have a good working memory, you might be able to hold them in a volatile buffer for periods of time, and move them, but you can only attend to them one at a time.
Where that has tragic consequences, is for learning. You can actually show that if you are multi-tasking ‘interrupted models’, as opposed to ‘non-interrupted’ models, and interrupted would be that every two or three minutes you’re doing something else, it takes you twice as long to do a particular task, and you have fifty percent more errors, then if you settle down, don’t multi-task, do one thing. Even if you bracket it with multi-tasking things on either side, but you say, “I have twenty minutes of solid concentration,” you can get through twice as fast, with half the number of errors.
Where it gets deadly is with cell phones. Whenever I see a cell phone person driving now, and I have my children, I have a ten-year old and an eight-year old. You can actually show that they have [24:30.8] reaction times, and the ability to attend to stimulus at the same rate as a person who has drunk between the statistics of .08 -.12. One of the reasons why is you can actually show, and there are millions of ways to show this, this has been replicated often, in Brain Rules, I have all of these references, but because we wanted to keep it friendly, the same reason we didn’t put diagrams in and slam it on a website. I don’t think you should believe me, but you may want to believe these data. You can actually show that they are making poorer judgments in terms of their ability to brake, they wobble a lot, and as they move between the phone and the driving themselves, and it’s special to the phone. We’ll talk about music in a second. It is specific to the phone, they are nine times more likely, at the moment of switch, to get into an accident, than if they just put the phone down and drive.
When I have my sons in the back of the car, Geoff, and I love those kids, I don’t want them breaking their backs on the back of some twenty-year old who is driving and text messaging, while I’m in the back with them. I back way off and think, “Okay, I’m looking at a drunk driver right now.”
Let’s unpack a little bit. People listen to music. They most certainly do. They eat sandwiches while they’re driving. Is the same problem occurring? Interestingly enough, the independent variable is if you’re talking to somebody on the phone, invariably, it’s like reading a book. You’ll hear them, and if they get pissed off at you, all of a sudden you are beginning to virtualize them. [laughs]. For those of you listening at home, he just opened the book while he was trying to listen to me and he did a great job. [laugh]. It turns out that it is the virtualizing itself that is the distraction. That’s where you begin moving. So, unlike music, you don’t necessarily virtualize the musicians that are out there when you’re listening. But, when you’re talking to somebody for real, who can actually interact with you, you end up doing what you do to books. That is, you visualize what you are seeing. That’s what you flick between. That’s the difference between music and not.
There is one study that needs to be replicated, but we can talk about it here, that even with music, you can watch a flicker occur. When you listen to a four-minute piece of music, you don’t usually like all four minutes. Maybe you just like the hooks, or maybe you think the hook sucks but you love the bridge. Maybe you like a certain instrumentation. One study has shown that when you are at the spot that you actually really like, you stop paying attention to the road also, and start paying attention to that, and then you come back to it. But, because it’s not like you have a 100%, which is what you’re doing on the phone, the distractions are more minimalized.
From now on, when you’re driving, dude, if you want to save your life, get off the phone.
Geoffrey: I was surprised to learn that only this year, did it become illegal to send a text message while driving, in Washington State. John; Thirty days ago, or sixty days ago, now. Pretty soon, in July, it’s going to be that you have to use a handless phone. It doesn’t matter. That data are exactly the same whether you’ve got your hands on it or not. The independent variable here is the virtualization. It doesn’t really matter. Our law sucks that way. It’s taking out only about half – they’re going to put everybody on speakerphones and it’s going to be the same thing.
That’s multi-tasking business is not to be trifled with. The little that we do know about the brain – it’s the same thing about classrooms. We do all kinds of stuff out here, some of which are very foolish, that are not particularly brain friendly at all.
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