John Medina (Conclusion)
We follow Part I with a discussion of the brain in relation to sleep and gender.
Somewhere, I remember a mailing list post where Why the Lucky Stiff claimed to have a dream and subsequently changed the implementation of Shoes. Does anyone have the link to that?
- Brain Rules website (Contains references and video samples from the DVD)
- Brain Rules book (Amazon affiliate link)
Interviewed by Geoffrey Grosenbach
Geoffrey: It’s the Ruby on Rails Podcast. I’m Geoffrey Grosenbach. March 7th, Show 69, Part Two of an interview with Dr. John Medina, Developmental Molecular Biologist. We’re talking about the brain. This time we dive into a few different topics, including how the lucky stiff can figure out computer programming problems in his sleep.
I’d like to thank Atlantic Dominion Solutions, a new sponsor of the Rails Podcasts. ADS is a Web development innovator specializing in building user-focused Rails applications, and enhancing their performance with Amazon Web services.
There’s a computer programmer familiar to people who are going to hear this podcast, who had a dream. The next day he woke up and changed his computer code based on what he had dreamed. Do you think maybe when we’re sleeping, we really can multi-task; we’re sleeping and then maybe our brain is still active and actually getting some work done at that point?
John: Sleep is such an interesting story. Shall we talk about your friend? The rule is sleep states are as important to the learning process as awake states. It’s not this truism about you’re drowsy so you can’t learn as well. The truism is literally becoming true, but on the back of some very interesting data. It hasn’t been until the last couple of years that we are actually starting to get a handle on why we need to sleep.
We need to sleep, for sure. Most people count it as energy restorative, but in fact, if you do the numbers, it’s not all that energy restorative. In fact, the brain is more rhythmically active at night than it is during the day, where you have this massive slow-wave sleep followed by a REM, and goes back. People are twisting and moving in their beds. You do the bioenergetics and you see that you’re getting some restoration, but it ain’t a whole lot.
The real question is why it is that we need to sleep, being as how it’s catastrophic to your learning process – go a couple of days. Why do you sleep? We’re finally beginning to get a handle on it.
Let’s do an interesting piece of data and then talk about the brain science itself. I might pull out let’s get one ready. This will do. This is an actual size of the brain. Take a look. It’s your skull, dude. Congratulations. So, it’s not that big; it’s about the size of a large grapefruit. It’s a lot smaller than one would think.
Geoffrey: Less tasty.
John: A little bit more filling. [laughs] There’s a lot of fat in there. Okay, a very interesting piece of data that you can repeat lots of different ways, and it’s been known for almost two decades. It was done with a bunch of math students, so they’re mathematically competent.
You teach them a math equation, how to do things a certain way. Let’s say you do it at eight o’clock in the morning. Unbeknownst to these math students, there is a much simpler algorithm. There’s a much simpler way to do this problem, but you don’t teach them the simpler way. You teach them the bonehead, less elegant way to figure out the problem. The question that the researchers were really asking was what is the percent chance that the kids will spontaneously come up with a better way, all by themselves?
You dose them with having them do the problems throughout the day, and then at the end of the day you ask how many of them came up with the algorithm. The answer is about twenty percent of the population. It’s not great, but not bad. It’s just there.
If you do this same experiment, but now it’s a twelve-hour experiment eight o’clock in the morning and then eight o’clock in the evening would be the last test. If you do that exact same experiment, but now you teach them in the evening, and you include in that twelve hours an eight hour pulse of sleep; are you familiar with this?
Geoffrey: I can see where this is going.
John: And then in the morning, after they’ve woken up and they’ve hit the problem again, you ask how many of them have spontaneously come up with it? The answer is sixty-five percent! You easily get anywhere usually it’s anywhere from a 2.8 to a 3X greater spontaneous creativity if they’ve had a chance to sleep on it, than if they don’t.
Do you know what? That’s been known for years. We’ve never taken advantage of it. For example, in a class, I sometimes will teach a math class and the fundamental theory of calculus is often tough for kids. I thought, “Okay, if we want to do something like this, we ought to take them out on a calculus retreat.” I would teach it at eight o’clock at night, and then in the morning they could start to work those kinds of things.
The hit was that there was something going on with sleep, that wasn’t necessarily energy restorative. In fact, If you think about it for a second, there’s some kind of processing going on. At 3X better creativity, you’ve got all kinds of things going on. Once again, this idea that sleep is not energy restorative gains credence here.
Alright. Let’s do some rats and then we can talk about the human studies. You’re going to see the exact same thing in humans that you see in rats. This is what was done. You put a bunch of electrodes in a rat’s brain. You have to surgically put them on, or on the surface. There are a lot of ways to do this. Then, you teach them to run through a maze. As they run through the maze, you begin to see, after they’ve learned it – it can take a lot of trials for a rat or a mouse to learn lab rodent is a better way to say it.
What you’ll see is that the brain will come up with a brain-specific algorithm that is specific for the map of the maze. You can see it every time the rat starts to go through the maze. They’ll deploy the algorithm. Does that make sense? You actually have a maze-specific; it’s not a signal. There’s not a lot of noise in this. Once they’re focused on the maze pattern, because they’re not on a cell phone, they can concentrate on it. They can make it specific.
Here’s the finding; if you let that laboratory animal go to sleep and they enter into something that’s called ‘slow-wave sleep’, which is non-REM 4, up to REM 1. There are a lot of ways to talk about slow-wave sleep. You see something absolutely extraordinary. They begin replaying what they learned that day, the maze-specific algorithm. It’s actually a sequence of depolarizing spikes, thousands of times during the course of the night, in a compressed form, over and over again.
All of a sudden, it hit the scientists looking at the list, going, “You know, there’s some kind of learning processing occurring. Let’s do this experiment. Let’s wake up the mice at the time when they are deploying.” Do you see where this is going? “If we wake them up and then keep them awake so they never have a chance to deploy this thousands of times of repetition, and then bring them back to the maze. How do they do?” How do they do, Geoff? They don’t do well at all! In fact, they have to relearn it.
The learning was not occurring during the day, the learning was being held as a buffer during the day. The thing was being multiply reinstated at night. So all of a sudden, it hit the researchers. I can tell you that a very similar thing goes on in human beings; it’s the exact same thing.
We do the same thing thousands of times compressed. What appears to be occurring, is that during the course of the day, you stack up in some kind of buffer, the kinds of things you think are important. Then at night, if you can enter into a regular slow-wave sleep, you begin revisiting all those things you thought were important. You just start replaying them over and over again.
One of the reasons why that makes some sense; it’s to the brain rule. That’s why I’m saying a truism has turned into a true. You’re literally seeing that sleeping becomes very much a part of the learning process. All of a sudden, we begin to understand why we sleep. We don’t sleep so we can rest. We sleep so we can learn.
The only thing sleep provides is that you shut off all of the other signals that could potentially interfere. You lock up your buffer for a whole day’s worth of activities. Then, you shut everything down. It’s a nice model, huh? You shut everything down so you can pay attention to the psychological interiors of your experiences during the day, and begin learning. With human beings, we grew our fangs, not in our claws, but in our heads. It was very important that we pay attention to it.
Geoffrey: Maybe this is part of why you said people do better if they take a nap at 3:00 pm, instead of slogging through the day. Doctors nap. That’s actually a good thing.
John: In fact, there are researchers back east, that are advocating for National Nap Day, so people learn You can show; there is something called the ‘nap zone’. In the nap zone, it usually occurs in the afternoon for most people, where the circadian arousal system and the homeostatic sleep drive are fighting each other. It’s a tug-of-war.
This is called the ‘opponent process’ model of sleep. What it is, is you have a drive that wants to keep you awake all the time. You have a drive that wants to put you to sleep all the time. They are thought of as biphasic curves going in the exact opposite direction. They meet in the afternoon, during that time. When it’s being decided whether you’re going to get a good night sleep or not, is the nap zone.
A group of scientists at NASA did this with pilots first, but they’re doing it in several different places. Since everybody gets sleepy, I can’t believe we’re doing this interview because we’re right in your nap zone. [laughter] That’s why I’m a little afraid of the heat in here. That can make you even drowsier, and the more information I give you, you could just shut down. You could be the sweetest kid in the whole world, but it would still happen to you.
Geoffrey: Your publisher planned this. Maybe he hasn’t read the book as thoroughly as you think he has.
John: No the publisher has been very good because I’m an active research scientist and this is the only time of day I have. [laughs] You’re catching me in between my exercise time and the time I have to give a big ol’ lecture. [laughs] No, Mark’s terrific. He has this down in spades.
If you allow a nap though, a twenty-minute nap, they were able to show about a twenty-two to twenty-five percent increase in overall performance right off the bat. If you allowed a forty-five minute nap, that performance up-tic was stable for six hours.
So, you may have had this experience. A lot of people have had the intuitive experience of something you can show empirically. That is, if you take a nap, only fifteen or twenty minutes, all of a sudden you feel refreshed. You go, “Ah, now I can go on with the rest of the day.” If you don’t, you can spend three or four hours trying to struggle through your afternoon.
You can show in the nap zone that people don’t do very well, thinking wise. Their problem-solving skills, those executive functions and stuff we were talking about, doesn’t work very well. You don’t memorize things very well. You can sit there, type it on your keyboard and look at the same line of code and go, “I’m stuck. I’m making my own little recursive loop, right here, right hereÉ I’m going to sleep.”
Another factor that affects this rule, is called “chronotype’. Are you familiar with chronotype?
John: In the literature, they’re called ‘larks and owls’; the fancy scientific term is called ‘early chronotype’ and ‘late chronotype’. It turns out that everybody’s sleep schedule is different from everybody else’s, but they can be grouped into statistical categories.
There are some people who are early chronotypes. A typical early chronotype wants to get up at six o’clock in the morning, if they have their way and didn’t have to worry about culture. They’d get up at six o’clock in the morning. Typically, they’d want to go to bet at nine o’clock at night. They report being at their most robust cognitively in the morning. You would call them morning people. The literature literally calls them larks. They are more productive in the morning. That’s about ten to twenty percent of the population.
Another ten to twenty percent of the population we call owls. If they had their ‘druthers, they would like to go to bed at three o’clock in the morning. They don’t want to wake up much before eleven-thirty in the morning. They report doing their best work in the evening. We call them night persons. That’s why the research literature calls them owls. It’s a difference between larks and owls.
Larks tend to do pretty well in our culture because it works with the work schedule fairly well. But, if you are an owl, my guess is, you can’t show this in the literature, but it’s my guess. I can actually see this in some of my friends’ classmates, and in some of my son’s classmates, for that matter, and actually, in some of the students I teach. I can sometimes pick out the late chronotypes. They look like they’re lazy. They look like they’re not focused. In fact, they’re exhausted.
Most people who are late chronotypes have an enormous sleep debt that they never fully recover from. My guess is that teachers, when they were growing up in elementary years called them lazy, unproductive, and unmotivated. Actually, they are harboring an unbelievable sleep debt. The instant they can get to a learning environment that literally allows them to get up later in the morning, and to go to bed in the wee hours at night, they thrive. They flock to it.
Here’s another way. This cubicle idea of having brain science tear down things. You can assay for this. You can find out who are the early and late chronotypes. If I were to tear down the system and start it all over again, the very first thing I would do is do an intake interview. I would ask who is late and who is early, not only the students, but also their teachers. Some of their teachers are early chronotypes and teachers that are late. You just match them.
Since this building, that university and the other one I pay attention to, since they are open, the buildings don’t fall down like a house of cards at night. They’re always available. They usually keep the heat and electricity on. They don’t turn them off. They are unused during that time. You could actually match the productivity. If you did that, you would probably reduce things like healthcare costs. These people are no longer stressed. They’re getting a good night sleep, for them, so the number of infectious diseases that they get are lowered. You can show that if you don’t have a lot of sleep debt. From a business perspective, if you are thinking of just productivity costs, you will have a much less sick population. That’s a test that probably should be done to see if it actually does change healthcare costs.
Geoffrey: I have to wonder; this whole podcast about open-source software. You have thousands of people who work a job during the day, then come home at night and work on their own projects. After a couple of years they suddenly have databases, operating systems, and all this stuff, made from scratch, that people wrote in the evening on their own time, perhaps when their minds were must attuned for it.
John: Exactly, and what they might say to their jobs is that they hate their jobs. It forces them to get up, do some things, and they are living on coffee, and all the types of strutting supports that might get them going. As soon as they break free from it, they go back to their older schedule.
I don’t think brain science says very much to education and business. Geoff, I don’t. That should be a part of this interview. By God, the things we know about now, are worthy of doing experiments to change some of the things. I can already see a lot of it are designed not with the brain in mind, but anti. In fact, if you wanted to design something if you were an enemy of the human brain, and you wanted to make the worker the least productive you could, you would design something like a cubicle, and have everybody get up in the morning at six o’clock, and have everybody leave the job at five.
Geoffrey: You also mentioned in the book, the male and the female brain are wired differently. We look at computer science – a lot smaller, less proportional representation of women in computer science. You look in open source, and it’s an even smaller percentage. The most popular podcast that I’ve done for this show, downloaded eighty thousand times, was with a group of women talking about their lives in development and writing computer software.
John: It was all males that downloaded it, too.
John: It’s not true. [laughs]
Geoffrey: But, there are many factors. It’s not like we can just put our finger on one thing. But, do you think this whole combination of society, businesses, learning, then add on to that the male and female brain differences, kind of makes an inhospitable environment for some of these practices?
John: Yes, and I think there’s both a strong social vent that has absolutely nothing to do with brain wiring, but everything to do with cultural prejudice, that are so pervasive, that it even trickles and marinates scientists. It affects their ability to do experimental design. They end up getting what they expected, not because they were getting a nice clean experiment and uncovered a difference, but because they uncovered their own prejudices.
I saved that rule for one of the last chapters in the book, because I want to make it an object lesson. When you’re walking the distance between a cell and a behavior, you’re walking something that is measured in light-years intellectually, in terms of the distance. We don’t know a lot about how to connect those two. You have to be careful. I’m about to do one.
There’s only one that I know of, that I think actually works. You can show, there are two hundred, three hundred separate neuroanatomical differences between the way men and women’s brains are wired. That you can show. How that links to behavior, we have no idea.
Let me give you one social prejudice, and then let’s go to a biological one. I think there are both. There’s an interesting work of Deborah Tannin. Deborah Tannin has investigated, for many years, how men and women use language, to see how they are different. You can actually show that even how they negotiate their social hierarchy depends on how they utilize their language. Men use it differently than women do.
Something that she’s been able to show in lots of different places, and I mentioned in the book, is we have lots of Deborah Tannin moments in my household. I have a ten-year old boy and an eight-year old boy. Let me unpack what I mean by that. It’s a social difference that ended by me doing an experiment in my son’s classroom. I actually put it in the book. It shows the great terror of watching social prejudices infiltrate our point of view, if that makes sense.
Here it is. For readers listening at home, I’m taking this pen and I’m going to throw it up in the air, like my son would do. For some strange reason, Joshua and Noah get along, despite my best efforts, they actually do pretty well. This is one of the reasons why they get along, and they negotiate their social hierarchy.
Josh will throw this pen and he’ll say, “Look, I can throw this up to the ceiling.” They’ll laugh and bond and Noah will go, “I can throw it up to the sky.” He throws it up a little higher and then Josh will grab it and go, “Oh yeah, I can throw it up to the galaxy.” Whoever gets to God first, usually wins. In fact, one of them grabbed the pen one day and went, “God.” [laugh] That’s the end of the story. Deborah was able to show that a lot of males do that. It’s one of the ways males negotiate their hierarchy.
You do that with little girls, you see something that will take your breath away. They also have social hierarchy. There is low status and high status in little girls. This is what happens, on average. If they start doing this, one of them will take the pen and say, “Look, I can throw this up to the ceiling.” The other little friend, who is also female, will take it and grab it and go, “Oh yeah, I can too.” It’s not even in the same universe.
Those differences turn out to be extraordinarily important in the classroom. I’ll show you why, and I’ll tell you the mini anecdotal experiment I did in my son’s class. My son’s teacher was deeply worried about something. Despite what the former president of Harvard says, math and science capabilities on the part of little girls’ brains and little boys’ brains are essentially identical.
It’s not true for language. Little girls do language better than little boys do, on average. In fact, that’s something you can show that percolates into adulthood, including their ability to recover from strokes that hit the areas of the brain that are responsible for language. Women can recover from them much better. There’s a different language facility, not in math and science though. This is to your point about software development and engineering and so on.
Here’s what she saw. She was presiding over a social prejudice. She was watching. In this fourth-grade class, Geoff, the little girls were starting to do very poorly in the math and sciences, and the little boys were starting to get ahead in the math and sciences. The little boys were not doing very well in the language arts, and the little girls were ahead.
We were talking about this and she said, “Is there anything we can do, John?’ She knows what I do for a living. I said, “You could try the following experiment.” I asked her to make some observations, then I went into another class, and I also made some observations in some other classrooms before. This is what I would see, not in this class but in another.
I would see do you remember this “throwing it up to the sky” versus “me too”? I would see the little girls, if there was a language arts type question, the little girls would raise their hand first. They’re actually a little better in this class. The little girls would raise their hands first and get it. Then they would look over and see if the little boys were doing it, see if there was any, what? What do you think Geoff?
John: Or, “me, too”. They didn’t see it. The little boys were seeing that the little girls were “throwing this up to the sky” and they couldn’t. They couldn’t, and they assumed the subordinate position. What do you do if you’re a low-status male? You withdraw. All other things equal. You withdraw and then you start cutting up with your friends as a pediatric way to withdraw.
Now, here comes the math and sciences, where they are equal. If the teacher asks, and this is what I would observe, when the teacher would ask a question in the math and sciences, the little boys were just as likely to raise their hands as the little girls. When the little girls would raise their hands, they would still look over and see the little boys, looking for “me too,” and not finding it, but when the little boys keep getting it, they would look over at the little girls and go, “See, bonk. I got it and you didn’t, Ha, ha.”
You know what the little girls started to do. They do what any marginalized population starts to do. They began withdrawing, just like the little boys did in the language arts. You could see the disparity. All of a sudden, the little girls weren’t even raising their hands for math and science. You could already see their questions were not being answered, and they were marginalizing towards it. Everybody goes to what they’re good at, so if they feel like they’re better at language arts than this strange terrarium they find themselves in, hence the social force that’s exerted over a population.
It pisses me off, actually. Okay, let’s go to the biological. Then we’ll be done. There is a difference. There is a behavioral difference you can show. To do that, we’d have to talk about some biology and I won’t too much, but let’s just say that there are two sides of the brain.
Some parts of the brain, for stressful responses, will handle the gist much better than the details. There are areas of the brain, one’s called the emigdala, which actually works with emotional processing and the emotional details of processing. What’s interesting about that, is this. If you do a non-invasive imaging experiment you can do a horrible experiment. You can actually watch somebody watch a slasher movie, or in some cases, there are these surveillance videos you can get of people being creamed by trains. You can get almost anything. Let’s stay with the slasher movies. They’re tough to watch, especially on the initial exposure. You sit somebody down and “Boom” comes the slasher movie.
You can actually watch something extraordinary. Men and women will process this stress in different areas of their brain. The men will process it in the area that is most responsible for the overall gist of what they saw, and not the details. Women will process it in the area of their brain that is responsible for the details, and not the gist. If you do a gist versus detail set of cognitive panels, to try and ferret it out, you begin to see something extraordinary. Men get the gist of an emotional response, and can’t do the details at all, and women can do the details of the emotional response and suck at the gist. That’s something you can take home to the bank.
To get any piece of data in my book, it has to not only be done once in a [24:11.0], it actually has to be replicated, hopefully in a non-competing laboratory. In the gender chapter, I had the additional requirement that it had to be replicated by a lab headed by opposite gender. If you could still see the same result, that way you don’t kill it, but you can dampen the social I’m deeply afraid of the marinating. That you can show. It has been replicated in a non-competing laboratory, headed by an opposite gender researcher. It’s something you can show.
What that suggests to me is details versus gist. If you think of management, you need both. You can’t just have somebody who is good at gist and not be able to see the emotional details, the landscape. You can’t have somebody who just does details and not the gist. You need to have the interactions of both.
It also suggests something else, that a lot of guys will pin on women, which I think is unfair. They’ll often say, “Women are more emotional than men.” You hear that a lot. You still hear that today. Talk about being pissed off, the chapter that pisses me off is this chapter. What you might be able to say, instead, is this; they’re not more emotional. They may be more emotionally aware and see more things, and thus can react to more things [26:16.4] time. If guys could see the same thing, they might also react with the same points of reference as the women. But, they’re not, so they look less emotional and women look more emotional.
Believe it or not, I gave this talk. When I have to unpack the MRI data, and we have to go into it. It was a group of design engineers at Boeing, and they were up for it. I gave this talk. There were two executives in training, who were women, at the back of the room. They started to cry after I mentioned these data about emotional versus not. I went, “Oh man, what did I do?” In fact, I was giving the talk and they were doing that when I was lecturing. I can lecture. I am pretty seasoned, but that got me. I’m going, “Oh man, what did I do?”
We had a question and answer period afterward. Eventually we all went up to the Afterburner Lounge. We talked for a couple of hours. They were there in the very back. They came up to me. Everybody else was gone. We had a chance to interact. I looked at them and said, because as you now know, Geoff, I have no social graces. I went up to them and I said, “You know, something happened to you guys. What did I do? Did I make you mad? Did I offend you? What’s up with those tears?”
One of them started crying again. I’m like, “Oh man, here it goes.” The other one said, “No, not at all, Dr. Medina. It was the first time in my professional life, in hearing you, where I felt like I didn’t have to apologize for who I was.” That’s why I wrote the book. End of interview.