Brain Rule: Book Review | 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

Summary of “Brain Rules”: A straightforward and pragmatic neuroscientist leads us on the conquest of recent discoveries about human brain function in order to live a better life and to have a better understanding of ourselves.

Brain Rules by John Medina was published in 2008 and is part of the Personal MBA.

Note: this review is a guest review written by Patrick Boutain from the blog “Mémoire facile”, in which he teaches how to improve one’s memory

The author: John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and researcher consultant. He is recognized as one of the greatest neuroscientists of our time. He teaches at the Department of Biological Engineering of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Washington.

Chronicle and summary of the book “Brain Rules”:

John Medina emphasizes the need to facilitate interactivity between three worlds: neuroscience, education and business. So many resources are born from the pooling of ideas. He also adds that if you aren’t subscribed to scientific journals, your chances of understanding how your brain works are diminished.

A book with 12 principles in the form of rules to survive and breathe new life into your own personal development.

Rule No. 1 Physical exercise boosts brain power

In order to capture our attention and preserve it, John Medina himself applies the strategies taught. He starts off with the story of an apparently extraordinary 70-year-old man, Jack LaLanne, considered the godfather of fitness. He leads us to discover the vital secret of this amazing septuagenarian.

Did you know?

Despite the divided opinions about the history of the human species, paleoanthropologists agree on one point: man was moving. It’s here that John Medina states some reported scientific facts (theory No. 3) that challenge our so-called historical accuracy on the traditional theory of migration via the Bering Strait.

A digression  that I’ll end here with the help of research from Quebec, including Patrick Couture’s website , which says:

“New archaeological discoveries challenge this paradigm. Here are some of the most plausible theories.”

Possible Origins of the First Americans – Patrick Couture

Who is right?

“In my humble opinion, it’s a mistake to limit oneself to one of these four theories. Each of them seems plausible, and why couldn’t they all be plausible?”

Let’s go back to the theory No. 3 used by John M. (p 17), according to which our ancestors, the Homo sapiens, left Africa (approximately 100,000 years), to arrive in South America well before Christopher Columbus, in Argentina to be precise, 12,000 years ago!


Overcoming the many obstacles of water bodies, mountain ranges, jungles and deserts were great feats.

However, what is even more amazing is their rudimentary techniques and tools that allowed them to build ships, sail and cross the high seas, when the wheel and metal didn’t exist.

Scientific deductions: Cognitive abilities were developed through physical activity. That said, does physical activity continue to influence our cognitive abilities?

It’s here that John M. take us deeper into the realm of the unbelievable (but true) with a new story, which allowed him to understand the benefits exercise has on the brain. A story about a concrete comparison between two characters, both 90 years old. One of them, Jim, a lonely old man residing in an American retirement home, and the other Frank, a famous architect.

Is there a factor that can predict how well you will age?

Knowing that humans are unique beings, can physical activity transform them? Well, researchers found that exercise reduced the risk of heart disease and of senility by 50%, and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 60%. The man to whom we owe this progress in this field of research is not a scientist, but an athletic trainer named Steven Blair (p 24). Benefits as effective for women and men, especially in the most severe cases, and in the elderly. And how about kids?

Few studies have been conducted on the subject despite the obvious needs, especially among schoolchildren. The author shares some of them with us, notably the case of a former model turned scientist, Dr. Antronette Yancey, who practices the Art of Performance!

Rule No. 2 Survival

Survival: To survive, the brain itself has also evolved.

In this second chapter, the author begins by coming to a realization thanks to his 4-year-old son, Noah. In two seconds, a stick stretched out like a sword, the child demonstrates to his father the use of one of the faculties that the human being has developed during these many years of evolution: symbolic reasoning.

One of the parodies of human evolution on

For when the man sees a stick, a piece of wood (or any symbol), he doesn’t necessarily perceive it as such but for some, it can be a sword, a spear, a fishing rod, etc.

Thanks to words and language, the human being has been able to develop the acquisition of much knowledge. Similar to that of this book, without having to experience it for oneself, this is the magic of imagination and that of symbolic reasoning (a talent specific to humans).

This is what scientist Judy Deloache calls the Dual Representational Theory, the main difference that differentiates us from gorillas, and other mammals closely related to humans.

It’s the combination of several perceived symbols that gives human beings language skills, the ability to write in these languages, mathematical reasoning, artistic expressions, and so on. (Points + scribbles become music or poetry – combinations of circles and squares becomes geometry, etc.).

The author then gives us a simpler and clearer explanation of the accelerated evolution and development of our brain. It was due to the forced adaptation to some serious climatic changes (in 40 million years, there were 17 ice ages).

An experience that went through large areas, far into forests, through flat lands where many predators reigned. It was necessary to adapt to these new situations on an unknown horizontal plane, with the words, as John Medina says, written on their butts: “Eat me, I’m prey“.

According to paleoanthropologist, Richard Potts (Director of the Museum of Natural History in Washington), humans didn’t fight against change, they gave up stability and adapted to change itself.

This theory provides fairly simple answers to the notion of learning in humans. The brain stores funds of knowledge, on the one hand, and can improvise off that knowledge, like the jazz player with his instrument. Our database allows us to become aware of our mistakes, and our ability to improvise allows us to draw new knowledge (lessons).

What was the role of learning bipedalism in our brain evolution?

J.M. tells us, first of all, trips of 20 kilometers per day requiring a lot of energy on all fours. Walking on two legs has saved humans energy, used not to pump up our muscles but our brains (2% of body weight). The other side of the coin is that the brain alone consumes 20% of our energy reserves.

The birth of the concept of learner and teacher in adults comes from the need for survival and to protect their offspring. In fact, physically disadvantaged compared to some terrestrial species, it took a lot of strategy to take on all the dangers. The solution that was implemented was teamwork.

Learning to cooperate is learning to understand others in terms of their needs, strengths and weaknesses.

Although a neurologist, John Medina is also an excellent pedagogue. Again, he uses an anecdote, or rather a situation, to help us to understand the teaching of human collective action to conquer the world

He quotes the sentence: “The husband died, then the woman died”… you would tell me then? Well, you just have to add two words to this sentence in order to infer mental representations associated with the mental state of the woman: “The husband died, then the woman died of grief“.

You will understand that your ability to learn is closely related to your emotional environment as a learner. The consequences of success in our two contexts:

  • Education      Learner ß relationship à Teacher
  • Business        Employee ß relationship à Boss

Rule No.3

 Brain wiring: every brain is wired differently

A third part where the stories mingle again, to keep our attention and our understanding.

Areas of different brain activities

According to individuals, their experiences and their environments, different regions of the brain have developed.

John M. makes a comparison with twins who, even with an identical experience, do not develop the same mental structures.

To fully understand what is happening in the brain when we learn, the author takes us through the “Fantastic Voyage” of the human body, a 1966 film.

During school you learn that living things are made up of cells. But what he teaches you here is that the appearance of your body is made up of dead cells. Yes, the surface of your skin, about 4kg is practically dead, an actual shield for the protection of living cells underneath.

Voyage through the infinitely small

To understand what a nerve cell is, John takes the example of a fried egg crushed under foot. You get a kind of multi-pointed star. After a simple, yet still scientific explanation, he gets us to dive into this world of the infinitely small. It takes us into underwater forests, canyons between two neurons.

John tells us that a child up to 3 years of age has the same number of neuronal connections as an adult, hence the belief that child brain development is crucial to the intellectual attainment of an adult… Well, it’s false!

Just like a growing tree, pruning is part of development and that’s what happens from ages 3 to 8, when the child still has their adult connections. This cycle starts again at puberty and ends around the age of 20 in order to settle into their final adult form.

As the author specifies, nothing approaching military precision is observed in the messy world of brain development.

The most explicit example is the appearance of the child from primary school to high school. In adolescence, for kids of the same age, some don’t change much from 2nd grade. However, others with their first beard are seen as accomplished men, and girls as full-fledged women.

The main finding, on primary and secondary school students, is that 10% of them don’t have adequate wiring to read correctly. Even though they’re supposed to be able to read according to our learning systems based solely on age, the rules of neurobiology state otherwise.

To conclude this chapter and the 3rd brain rule, the author suggests some ideas on the art of pooling in research, in teaching and business in close links with scientists. The mind theory using a test to measure empathy that would result in applying mass personalization (treat each student or employee as a distinct individual). 

Rule No. 4

Attention: we don’t pay attention to boring things 

This chapter begins with a sweeping spotlight that suddenly wakes up the author, around 3 o’clock in the morning. The moon light is coming through the interior of the house, when suddenly an unfamiliar silhouette appears searching the house!

Fear and bewilderment take over, but despite all the emotions felt, it was necessary to act. This was a situation that lasted only a few seconds, according to John, but it was enough to burn various details of it forever in his mind.

Attention plays a big role in learning. As a student and then teachers much later, my findings are scientifically backed (and we all know it). The author tells us that the brain remains attentive for about 10 minutes only. In general, a break in a classroom or business environment occurs fifteen minutes before an activity.

The challenge is to find the means, in the two previous contexts, to maintain and to develop the attention of the people during a given time.


What captures our attention is influenced by notions of déjà vu. Indeed, our brain associates new information with that which we already have, from past experiences. An operating part constantly scanning our environment.


Even in similar situations, culture will also play an important role in attention. Here, John M. compares two kinds of citizens: Asians and Americans.

While an Asian experiences a visual scene, he sees relationships between objects in the foreground and in the background. Conversely, the American only sees the foreground, with little regard for the context and perceives it rather poorly.

These two elements must be taken into account in any presentation, whether as a businessman, lecturer or educator. Your audience’s attention will depend on your interest in the targeted audience.

Nevertheless, many similarities exist despite cultural differences. What the researchers call: external sensory stimulation.

The author tells us about marketers and the effect of good advertisements. On the scientific side, he talks about the research of a British neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks, who demonstrates, through his ability to tell stories, that each cerebral hemisphere has a projector dedicated to the visual.

In all circumstances, promote the development of your faculty to visualize, recall while setting the scene, act as if. 

Emotions capture attention

Emotions allow our brain to stick a chemical Post-it note on the information it gives us. It results in more lively, concrete and, above all, more energetic information processing, something everyone wants (parents, teachers and advertisers).

The meaning before the details

Advertising is the most concrete experiment to see the effect of emotions rather than details. What remains over time? Experiment: the feeling prevails over the memory of details.

Concrete proof of the effect of the details experiment, related to the meeting of neuroscientist, K. Anders Ericsson and a waiter (Marc) who remembers all his orders on a menu of more than 500 choices. His secret is revealed to you in an extraordinary way, about a well-known principle among neuroscientists (the exceptional organization of data, related to the associations of concepts), thus consistent with cerebral functioning. By this basic principle memory is improved by 40%.

The myth that the brain can multitask

Here, the author tells us about attention, this resource used to listen, to follow along with a lesson or an employer’s terribly boring speech. This is a scientifically proven fact: we are biologically unable to perform multiple simultaneous acts that require focus of attention.

Imagine for a moment the daily life of your children, your students, your colleagues or your employees working on a computer screen where several programs are open, listening to music with the phone always nearby.

Well, John M. explains, in detail, what happens in your brain when you force it to go from one action to another. He tells us that wanting to operate your brain in a multitasking environment is like putting your left shoe on your right foot.

A study showed that it only takes reaching out for an object while driving to multiply the risk of accident by 9 (reaching for your cell phone is a perfect example…).

Finally, an essential point of this fourth rule is that the brain needs a break to digest information. Our education systems are too often subject to the concept of force-feeding and it doesn’t allow for the necessary time to link sets of information to each other.

John Medina’s 10-minute rule

A rule that is intended as much for teachers as it is for speakers and business leaders. The author suggests using hooks within exciting stories to trigger emotions.

Rule No. 5

Short-term memory (Repeating information to remember it)

Born in 1951, with an enlarged head, no corpus callosum and a damaged cerebellum, this is the story of Kim Peek, a man who could not walk until the age of 4. Yet he has a particular gift. The gift of being able to read two pages at a time, one with each eye, remembering everything, forever. He had one of the two most studied brains in the 20 th century that has resulted in our current understanding of the subject.

The famous film “Rain Man” was based on this man’s prodigious story.

Everything happens in the first moments when his brain is exposed to information that can be compared to what takes place at the beginning of our learning (for an ordinary brain).

Difference between memorizing and remembering

We still know very little about the brain’s different memory systems. One of them, the most widely known, is declarative memory (the sky is blue). It has a life cycle according to 4 stages: encoding, storing (or retention), retrieving (or retrieval) and forgetting.

The second extraordinary character, born in 1850, is Hermann Ebbinghaus. A man who was monitored and studied for more than 40 years by Brenda Milner (psychologist from Montreal), not for his abilities, but his extraordinary disabilities.

Unlike in the first case, following a bicycle accident and the necessary surgical procedure a few years later, the man was from then on unable to go from short-term memory to long-term memory. He could no longer create memories.

Following the various discoveries, two types of memories could be identified. On the one hand, declarative memories (lists of words, numbers, etc.) that we consciously build, that we announce (example: this text is black). Then the others, unexplained and unconsciously experienced as the set of abilities used to ride a bike, called automatic processing. 

Different types of information processing

Researchers are still working on the problem of linking information.

It all starts with the first meeting of the brain and a new declarative information (perceptual encounter).

Encoding, the moment your brain starts to learn

Here is the clinical case of Tom, a young autistic boy who was monitored by the neurologist, Oliver Sacks. It’s the story of a little boy who can listen to complex pieces of music and then play them on the piano, from memory, after listening to them only once.

You would think the most incredible aspect would be that he never took music lessons, but it’s not. The most incredible thing is his ability to play a different piece with each hand, while singing a third song, and that he could also play with his back to the piano.

Contrary to the belief of some, we don’t have buttons to record and play at will. The initial moment of learning, encoding, is still a great mystery.

The image given by the author is that of a blender in action, without a lid (information cut into small pieces and projected on the insides of our mind). For a more precise understanding, J.M. offers us simple tests and exercises (p 119).

The author gets back to talking about the concrete, the everyday with 3 characteristics vital to the encoding process and applicable in the world of business and teaching:

  1. the more your information encoding is developed at the time of learning, the more you will remember;
  2. information storage in the brain goes through the repetition of an identical circuit;
  3. the best way to improve the memory of a piece of information is to reproduce the conditions present during the initial encoding (atmosphere, stimulated senses). 

Rule No. 6

Long-term memory (Remember to repeat)

We are on a small platform; a slight fog comes down over the surroundings of a large bookstore. Several boats dock regularly. The dockers do their best to unload piles of books onto this small platform.

Yet, after barely enough time to transport a few books to the bookstore, another boat arrives.  They go back to unloading the boat stacking new piles and leaving the old ones.

The sixth chapter begins with this obsolete metaphor for a memory. In fact, the process of short-term memory is much more active and complex than that.

The story of the first chess star, Miguel Najdorf, a Pole who highlighted this so-called working memory, is in fact only an airlock, a temporary space of information processing.

Today, scientists, including the Brit Alan Baddeley, have presented this model with three components (auditory: phonological loop, visual: visuospatial sketch pad and executive: central executive) that John Medina presents.

Initially, any trace of information to remember is low, similar to the first steps you would take in an open field with tall grass. If you haven’t made any pathways behind you, then the information is in great danger of disappearing.

Memory consolidation

In front of the television with his son (at the age of 6), the author watches a TV program about dog shows, and suddenly out of nowhere, a childhood memory resurfaces. Once again on the platform of working memory, this memory becomes flexible again and must go through a phase of reconsolidation to be stored again comfortably.

In the previous chapter we saw that working memory (the short-term one) has several forms. Well, scientists think that there are also different forms of long-term memory, but they don’t agree with each other.

Some speak of semantic memory (the memory of particular events and general knowledge). They believe in the existence of an episodic and autobiographical memory (episodes of our life where you’re the hero) … You will discover concrete revelations about these beliefs.

For a long time, these researchers thought that the consolidation of a memory (repetitions) didn’t enable a person to discover their original fragility, today we know that’s false! This reinforces the importance that John Medina puts into repetition. Awareness of an event and its storage are not permanent in our life!

Retrieving (or retrieval)

Although we still do not know how this process works, researchers organized these mechanisms into two major models: the library and the detective like Sherlock Holmes. Of course, both models are good, depending on the type of information you want to look for and the elapsed time between learning and retrieving.

The brain hates emptiness

The library model is reserved for the first moments of our learning. It’s fresh, its details of memory are still accurate. But over time, your biological computer must at all costs fill the memory gaps with the second model, like a detective.

The brain always needs a coherent story, it doesn’t make the difference between the real details of the memory and those that have nothing to do with it (even made up ones). As confirmed by J.M., this organ takes pleasure in inserting false information to fill its gaps.

Hence the importance of repetition as soon as possible after learning (accompanied by meanings and emotions) and at regular intervals, this is what constitutes the closest fixative to the original(First learning rule specified by Jean-François Le Ny)

The desire to talk about learning, about an event right after its realization is indicative of the onset of an “emotionally catchy” environment that will optimize its retrieval. It would be an ideal to strive for in any teaching, conference talk or production regulations in business!

Long neurological chatter

J.M. makes the analogy of an overnight army (for the cortex) and the experimentation of an old soldier (for the hippocampus). Even after 30 years of research, we do not yet know how they make a lasting memory. However, scientists know some things about their communication (their exchanges), the author popularizes this with imagination and pedagogy.

The film “Planet of the Apes”, released in 1968, where psychological tensions are very present, shows a astronaut who crashes on a planet led by apes. He discovers with sadness that this planet is his own and that he has not left his starting point. His reaction, on his knees, seeing a piece of the Statue of Liberty protruding from the sand is spontaneous, linked to his memories “You ended up doing it…!”. 

The comparison made here by John on the changes made over  time concerning the man’s memory about his planet is based on personal data and aren’t necessarily consistent with the astronaut. The exchanges built between his hippocampus and his cortex fed on incomplete information to conclude the supposed apocalypse.


This is the story of the Russian journalist, Solomon Shereshevskii, who is able to forever memorize a list of numbers and letters with more than 70 elements (forward and backward). But the big problem of this phenomenon is on the one hand, that he could not forget, but also that he could not understand what he was reading, the meaning of global situations associated with the details of an experiment.

Forgetting makes it possible to classify events by priority, it is our safety valve for normal function.

Forgetting is also the generator of new ideas. The word on the tip of your tongue, mistaking the name of a person or thing, these are ways to leave room for other information that creates new networks… This is how the author teaches us that forgetting has helped us to conquer our planet.

So, how do you apply, concretely, all this knowledge about long-term memory in the education system and in a company? These are ideas suggested by John Medina, at the conclusion of this chapter.

Rule No. 7

Sleep…sleep well to think well

John M. reports that in 1965, Randy Gardner, at the age of 17, broke a world record for sleep deprivation. Realize that only after five days of 11 days without sleep, the poor soul began to have disorders similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

The scientist, William Dement (often called the godfather of sleep research), was allowed to study the brain of this young man during this period. The eleventh day was just as impressive, Randy was still able to beat William D. at pinball, 100 times in a row!

The author details this; and as an honest scientist, he states that although we sleep 1/3 of our lives, we still don’t know why we need to sleep. However, scientists nonetheless have a pretty good idea thanks to the following story.

Let me sleep on it

About ten years ago, a laboratory rat fell asleep in the middle of a maze experiment with its electrodes still connected. This allowed the scientists to highlight the continuation of high activity of neurons during sleep.

Where it becomes interesting is when the rat met a wicked researcher who woke him up in his sleep, then he found that the rat had trouble remembering his journey the next day to succeed in the maze. Hence the conclusion that sleep consolidates the learning of the day before, as long as its slow wave cycle is not interrupted.

But what about human beings, you ask? Does this mechanism also apply to us? J.M. states that researchers responded positively. The human being does this in a much more complex process and with an emotional charge in addition to another phase of sleep (paradoxical sleep…that of dreams). This phenomenon is observed not only in humans but also in most placental mammals and birds.

So, what is happening? The author takes us through a real battlefield where two armies clash. On one side, neurons and hormones with chemicals called process C, the one that keeps you awake (usually it can last up to 16 consecutive hours).

On the other, a process of identical composition called S, the one that causes you to sleep. It can keep one asleep for 8 hours, for most of us. Concrete examples support this discovery.

The case of the nap, a period of beneficent sleep

The story of the 36 th president of the United States of America, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is surprising. Can you believe, he used to close his office door in the middle of the afternoon and put on his pajamas for a 30-minute nap. Maybe weird but this healthy functioning would allow him to work for a very long time.

Following scientific studies conducted by NASA, it has been proven that a 26-minute nap maximizes a pilot’s performance by 34%. Another study showed that a 45-minute nap increased cognitive abilities in the same proportion for 6 hours. So much evidence that the brain has a physiological need to nap.

It is statistically proven that there are more accidents during this time of day.

There are so many stories of how genius inventors (women and men) found the key to their research while they slept. The author tells us about the creator of the periodic table of chemical elements, also called Mendeleyev’s table. 

The type of learning that seems to be most responsive to sleep is that of procedures. An experiment on two groups of students brings awareness to this.

Sleep really plays a key role in learningOn the other hand, lack of sleep is quite harmful to cognitive functions. The author tells us about the latest research that highlights the impact of a lack of sleep on other non-sleep related functions.

This goes to the chemical data of our body, such as the finding on a 30-year-old man, fit and sleep deprived for 6 days (about 4 hours less each night). The chemical aspect of his body changed to look like a 60-year-old being. To recover his original chemistry, he would need a whole week with a good night’s sleep. 

To close the chapter, John Medina proposes to match the chronotypes (biological rhythms) and the schedules of study or work.  Napping in business and education adapted to their sleep-wake cycle, which isn’t at 8 o’clock in the morning.

Rule No. 8

Stressed brains don’t learn the same way

John shows us that the relationship between stress and learning can be simple and non-devastating. Stanislavsky’s experiment (living from inside the fright) conducted on theater students (from the University of California at Los Angeles) proves that the immune system can be susceptible to stress.

Another story related to stress, that of Judith, a teenager from a poor neighborhood and who was badly treated during her early childhood. Contrary to what one would have thought, she became a high school student appreciated by all, a very good student and apparently without any painful psychological damage.

Humans are unique and therefore unequal in terms of stress. The scientific evidence for the best indicator of academic success, and consequently professional success, is the emotional stability of the family.

John M. notes 3 important elements for measuring work stress: the type of stress, the balance between motivation and boredom, then the balance between private and professional life.

In fact, the stress itself is not dangerous, it’s a natural self-defense system of your body in the face of a danger that may be significant but temporary (only designed for the short term).

Where it becomes a potential enemy is when it turns into a chronic disease due to a problematic environment, with repetitive tensions (family, professional or social).

The conclusion of this eighth rule would be the possibility of being able to restore the control of daily stress for better productivity. It may also be necessary to look at strategies that minimize boredom, which in itself is a source of stress that numbs the brain.

Why not create airlocks, mandatory firewalls between private and professional life? As we know, the stress of one affects the other and it becomes a vicious circle that can at any time switch to depression. 

Rule No. 9

Sensory integration 

Have you ever noticed the trickery effect that happens in movies? The screen in front of you (the visual), the sounds coming from the speakers located on the sides and behind you… yet your brain makes you believe that the sounds come out of the mouth of the actors.

This behavior, which scientists still challenge, is what they call synesthesia. The author puts us in front of a strange aspect of information processing, which appears like a circuit breaker for our brain.

In other words, synesthesia is an overdose of received sensory information. John M. uses several examples including that of a nightclub (noises, lights, contacts, emotional atmosphere, smoke, alcohol etc.).

The author presents two scientific theories:

  1. according to the first theory, our senses function separately to send their information to a command center;
  2. according to the second theory, our senses cooperate from the beginning, consult each other, and influence each other.

He shows particularly what happens at the moment of perception. A particularly appreciated step when it no longer works (Oliver Sacks studies).

After being fragmented, what happens to our received information and how will it be grouped together to form our representation?

With this rule no. 9, I’ll let you find out that the place where this process occurs is easier to explain than how it works. J.M. has us imagine a group of experts who analyze each data received, for example from the visual (the upward processing) for reading.

They would identify the shape of each letter (bow for a U, lines for a T…), which requires a lot of effort and time. And you will understand why reading is a relatively slow way to integrate information into the brain.  Then these experts would send their reports to a committee of decision-makers.

It is for this reason that two people at the same time in the same situation can perceive two completely different things. The more the brain tries to simplify, the more it causes confusion.


The strange phenomena of one of the types of synesthesia (there is more than 50), is that even if the wiring of the brain is damaged, the senses continue to cooperate. Researchers concluded that visual data influences perceived sounds even without their presence!

Does multi-sensoriality enhance learning?

The author cites the work of Richard Mayer, expert in multimedia exposure and learning. It contains key principles about the collaboration of visual and auditory senses.

But be careful of the trap, which is often the consequence of our interpretations.

Believing that providing additional information to our brain, at the time of learning, optimizes it!

John M. introduces here the hiker’s metaphor, which suggests that wearing two heavy backpacks would allow him to reach his destination faster than one!

The particularity of the olfactory sense (the Proust effect)

A stroll in the center of the brain of a young soldier from Vietnam. Having apparently gotten out unscathed, psychologically, he decides to study medicine. What a surprise for him and his circle when the first day he attends a surgery, he runs out of the room screaming. So, what happened inside his head?

Scientists have known for a long time that an odor alone can revive many memories, even very distant ones. John M. explains this very well.

In short, the olfactory receptors lack protection, they go straight to their destinations (the center of emotions and a brain region involved in decision making) without going through the sorting center that is the “Thalamus”, unlike our visual receptors that are protected by the cornea and hearing receptors that are protected by the eardrum.

Suggestion: “nurture reflections that go beyond your current learning environments related to visual and auditory information.” Add a maximum of sensory stimuli. 

Rule No. 10  

Vision trumps other senses 

For those who know me through my blog “”, I come from Southwestern France. I’m from Bordeaux, where wine is one of the main activities. What does that have to do with John Medina’s Rule No. 10?

Well, it’s the American author himself who takes you there, through a story about wine experts fooled by a team of European neuroscientists, who came to Bordeaux University of Enology.

Where I live, in the wine world there is, as John specifies, a specific vocabulary for each wine, white and red.  Experts never mix them up.

In this experiment, the researchers deceived 54 professional tasters by adding a harmless, tasteless red dye to white wine. The result was conclusive; they all used the vocabulary of red wine. One more proof of the power of the visual over all the other senses in the same spatio-temporal space.

The researchers gloated by saying that “the nose smells what the eyes see“. From a biological point of view, John lets us know why.

The author reveals that the retina is an antenna full of activities. It’s similar to the Hollywood stages where a dozen film crews each shoot their own film.

These films are sent to the occipital cortex (the headquarters of visual perception). You become aware then that your representation is the result of an assembly of several feature films and not the 100% reliable projection of what reality can be. 

Which brings us to visual hallucinations, hypotheses of the brain. John M. proves to us in real time, as we read Brain Rules, what our brain loves to do, which is to invent stories without considering what our eyes can see.

Your past experiences play a big role in these representations and assumptions organized by your brain. Vision accounts for 50% of brain activity. This tendency is so powerful that we are trying to visualize what a text says. In this regard, the author quotes George Bernard Shaw: “Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap”.

With the effects on learning and memory, images are much more effective than words. The more the information considered becomes visual, the more likely it is to be recognized.

This picture superiority effect is proved by the image recall experiments in which the images projected for a few seconds had a successful recall of 90%, after several days. So, try it at home; it’s a very easy experiment.

When the researchers performed these tests with texts and spoken words, the results dropped to 10% recall. The author gives a logical explanation for this. The brain perceives words as a multitude of tiny images.

Remember (rule no. 10), the brain analyzes shapes and then recreates letters. It’s as if you’re entering a museum and contemplating each letter as a work in its own right. A discovery that says a lot about the effectiveness of reading. For our brain, words don’t exist, they are only accumulations of miniature images.

The chapter also discusses a simple experiment on a baby to illustrate one of the aspects of visual auditory information processing. John Medina tells us that he owes his chosen line of work to Donald Duck, of Walt Disney (Donald in Mathmagic Land).

Rule No. 11

Gender, male and female brains are different

Prejudices only delay or even diminish the chances of a society’s evolution. Women and men enable a balance between the sense of detail and the sense of the whole picture for greater productivity.

Aristotle on a mural in Rome (384-332 BC) [Source: Wikipedia]

“The female is an impotent male…” 

The war of the sexes, oh yes, that lasts for centuries and John goes back, at least 2400 years with Aristotle; the famous philosopher who was the preceptor of one of the most famous characters of ancient times; Alexander the Great, and who stated, “The female is an impotent male.”

J.M. tells the story of a fictional assistant director of an airport. A study conducted on the observed consideration of a corporate staff member facing an assistant director man and woman. The observation is clear, if it’s a man, he is considered competent and friendly. If it’s a woman, she is perceived as competent but as a bitch… yes; these are the words of the author.

Spotlight on biology

The X chromosome carries most of the genes involved in brain manufacturing. Men have only 1 whereas women have 2 (one in reserve).

J.M. reminds us of the story of the hard battle of one out of 400 million sperm cells finding an egg during the sexual act. His comparison with the movie “Star Wars” is very concrete. What is less known is that this X chromosome is carried by only half of all spermatozoa and conversely by all the eggs.

The author selects three gender differences: genetic, neuroanatomical, and behavioral. To be more explicit, he chooses the sexual life of King Henry VIII and all his wives for the design of a single male heir!

Biolgist John Medina refocuses us by saying that in order to make us, we need 46 chromosomes (twisted filaments called DNA). They are distributed equally, 23 from the mother and 23 from the father. Of these, two are sex chromosomes, X and Y.

Note: At least one X has to be present on both otherwise, it’s not happening. So, if you are conceived with 2 Xs, you will enter the world as a lady and if you have 1 X and 1 Y you will enter the world as a man.

The man determines the sex of the child. This is confirmed by the work of David C. Page (of the Massachusetts Institute), who isolated the SRY gene (Sex-determination Region of Y chromosome) on the region responsible for making a male.

However, to put an end to preconceived notions, interesting revelations about the myth of human dominance on Earth, researchers have discovered that, by default, the fate of the human embryo is to become, first and foremost, a woman.

The wholesale slaughter of myths continues

Have you all heard the statement about the power of distinguishing creative people from those who are more logical and analytical… right brain and left brain?

Nonsense is what J.M. proclaims!

Of course, he explains it to us, thanks to the analogy of a liner. The sides do not have the same functions, but they are both involved in the actions carried out.

Dr. Deborah Tannen’s scientific work shows that girls and later women use eye contact and talk a lot to build relationships. As for the boys, for them, it’s rather by action and shared physical activities.

Again, our brain plays tricks on us, it’s the misinterpretation of scientific results that makes most people think that boys compete and girls cooperate. False!  Boys cooperate as much, just through competition.

So, how do you apply this knowledge in the reality of everyday life?

Well, managing the emotions of women and men is an everyday act for both teachers and business professionals. As usual, the author suggests to us some ideas which could make you more effective, even efficient, notably by learning how to manage emotions:

  • they are useful;
  • men and women process emotions differently;
  • the differences are a product of nature and nurture. 

Rule no. 12

We are natural explorers

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
[Chinese proverb used by the author to summarize the general idea of this rule] 

Do we lose our learning abilities with age?

Well for the past 8 years, scientists have gone back on their assertion: “our neural capital decreases gradually with age”.

Recent discoveries prove that the brain continues to create new neurons. Of course, many of them disappear every day but our brain creates new ones in our learning-related regions.

The stimulation of our curiosity allows to create new networks of neurons; modifies the structure and the function of our brain according to our experiences. Remaining curious is the fuel needed to develop your brain throughout your life, regardless of age.

John Medina says that scientists no longer have the same view on babies; considered for a long time as matrices, blank programs. In fact, the baby is a model, a reference to understand how humans learn at any age.

In 1979, it was Andy Meltzoff who rocked the world of psychology with the innate faculties of newborns (by sticking out his tongue at babies).

You know how difficult it is to keep the attention of a little one, especially for almost 30 minutes. Well, it’s very possible with the game of covering and uncovering objects presented in this last chapter.

A method of learning that quickly becomes obvious if we refer to our ancestors and their survival. Ferocious animals could devour them at all times in the Savannah. However, without seeing them, they could imagine them present in their environment.

If the baby continually tests his surroundings, he’s testing you as well. It is between 14 and 18 months that it discovers that his desires and his preferences are not those of others. John Medina invented 7 rules to characterize this point of view (the first: “If I want it, it’s mine.” And the last one: “If it’s mine, it’s mine.”).

See and imitate, a game of mirror neurons

Here is the story of a monkey, raisins and brain activities that brings three Italian researchers from the University of Parma to discover these cells that reflect, as a mirror, their surroundings.

The author tells you that scientists are beginning to understand these processes, also identified in humans. In humans, the mirror neurons are presumably scattered to the four corners of the brain. Finally, he adds that, every year, the brain unveils some of its secrets through the study of toddlers.

To answer the first question asked about learning abilities and age; two Nobel laureates Edmond Fischer and Edwin Krebs, aged 72 and 74; confirm that curiosity remains the fuel of their brain.

To conclude this last chapter, John Medina reminds us that breaking this virtuous circle of development is very easy. And that’s what we’ve been doing for centuries in our education and business management systems.

The example to remember from our first days of class which is very evocative. Children associate school with notes and not a desire for curiosity.

It’s exactly the same process for the employee who associates company and salary. John suggests ideas and encourages us to further promote curiosity at any age; in any environment (at school, at the university and at work).

Patrick Boutain’s (from the blog Mémoire facile) conclusion:

Brain Rules reinforces, scientifically, the more than 50 years of curiosity that I have always had. This is the main fuel that has allowed for my personal growth; which I have the joy of sharing right now.

This book truly helped me to finally rid myself of misconceptions and myths; which had caused me a lot of suffering. For example, the misconception of like father like son or the misconception that one could multi-task while remaining concentrated; or that sports and music couldn’t replace work…”it’s with sweat and effort that you will succeed”.

While re-reading this book, I became aware that emotion-generating stimuli during my childhood was not used enough like it was by John’s mother; who accompanied him in each of his experiments. Of course, it may have been because my parents were skilled workers; always busy with work from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm every day. However, I can’t hold it against them.  What I blame is how our systems (educational, business etc.) have been stagnating; out of carelessness or ignorance, for so many years, whereas neuroscience is progressing.

That’s why I left school at age 15 and business at age 33. It’s as a self-taught man that I was able to access my dreams.  As the author says, there is still too much of a gap between the world of research, education and business.

In summary, with Brain Rules, I realized that I was on the right path; where you learn to develop your instinct as an explorer.  For me, referring to models, mentors, it’s also to demonstrate learning through mimicry. Not to mention that I learn every day as much from my students; as I do from my surroundings as a whole. 

What Brain Rules will provide you

12 principles in the form of rules to survive and breathe new life into your own personal development. A book to debunk some of your misconceptions.

It should help to bring useful awareness into your daily life.

Resources that every teacher, educator (including parents); and entrepreneur should refer to and put into practice in order to benefit from them.

It’s vitally important to get to know our functioning as humans (I am not talking about personality; but cognitive functions) before taking on, passing on and/or forming a belief.

Brain Rules is a successful popularization of current knowledge about the brain; where the author wishes that the transmission of this knowledge can be accessible to the greatest number of people; in order for these same people to evolve.

Strong points:

  • No fluff, only facts and scientific revelations that are within everyone’s reach 
  • Clear and precise explanations thanks to the use of appropriate set-ups.
  • Stimulating stories for your senses, involving emotions, a concrete application of what the author advocates
  • Always a summary page that is dedicated to the chapter’s key ideas.

Weak points:

  • The only point I could find here would come only from the reader himself and from what he will do with this acquired knowledge, this revealed data.

My rating : Brain Rules memory Brain Rules memory Brain Rules memoryBrain Rules memoryBrain Rules memoryBrain Rules memoryBrain Rules memoryBrain Rules memoryBrain Rules memory

Have you read “Brain Rules”? How do you rate it?

Mediocre - No interestReasonable - One or two interesting paragraphsIntermediate - Some goods ideasGood - Had changed my life on one practical aspectVery Good - Completely changed my life ! (No Ratings Yet)


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I want to justify my rating, quoting Garr Reynolds, author of Zen Presentation published on the book cover: “Brain Rules is one of the most informative, interesting and useful books of our time. A must-read for all educators and business leaders. My favorite book of 2008″.

Flickr Credit by Gaetan Lee

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