2 books about brain: What best neuroscientists can teach us about memory, creativity, society, productivity, work & leadership

Not a long time ago I wrote a post about My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. And during last couple of months I listened to and read 2 more: Brain Rules by John Medina and Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Unlike Jill, they don’t tell their own stories but try to give real life recommendations based on neuroscience research.

John focuses on general principles rules of brain functioning which he covers relatively briefly. David on the other hand provides more of a deep dive in various situations that we face daily, mostly at work but views them through the prism of our brain and its biochemistry. Social concepts, such as status, reward and others are explained through things like oxitocin, dopamin & epinephrin.

Those who find such topics interesting can find my notes below. Plus, a couple of great videos of authors’ talks and one fun Slideshare presentation.

1. Brain Rules by John Medina

I used the actual “brain rules” by John from his website as the basis for my notes and briefly tried to explain main idea of each one.

John Medina

EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.

John recommends various kind of physical activity, especially aerobic one, including long walks. He states that if participants of business meetings walked on treadmills with 1.8 mile/hr speed, they would come up with much more creative ideas, not to mention increased memory and overall well-being. By the way, John takes his own medicine. It took him 15 minutes to adapt to replying to emails while walking.

SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.

This is one is basically about history. The humankind survived mostly due to our brains as our brains are not all that adapted. Developed brain on the other hand allowed us to create unions with other people and win in the game of life by doing so. John also states that in order to have optimal brain functioning we need to feel completely safe. And based on this premise he critiques traditional corporate open spaces & cubicles as well as school classrooms.

WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
The concept of neuroplasticity is presented here: tasks that our brains are busy with literally shape them throughout our lives. As a result, we think very differently. Yeah, tell us something we don’t know… Again, based on this concept John describes the typical school as a terrible environment as it fosters uniformity more than creativity and diversity.

ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
We pay attention only to a very limited list of things. Such as emotions, sex, everything that is perceived as a threat, etc. That’s why it’s an art to get people interested in something that initially is not all that exciting. Taking into consideration “deaths from Power Point”, there are not so many people who mastered this kind of art….

John recommends to stimulate an audience attention every 10 minutes. For example, you might tell a relevant story, show a relevant video or otherwise engage everyone into active listening.

Here he also states that we’re unable to multitask. Unless everything except for main activity is performed completely automatically. After interruptions it takes a lot of time to get back to what we have been doing. On average, we finish 50% later and 50% more mistakes.

SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
Nothing eyes-opening here. To remember a phone number, you’d better repeat it during first 30 seconds.

LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
Same thing that you were probably taught at school. In order to remember something we need to repeat. The difference is that John recommends to do it in 1.5 to 2 hours instead of 1.5 to few days.

SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
All our cognitive functions are impaired when we are sleep deprived. Those who try to get more done by limiting their sleep time might use it as a food for thought…

Besides, 1/2 an hour afternoon nap can actually benefit freshness of our thinking a lot. But again very rarely corporate offices are designed accordingly. NASA experiment with pilots showed 34% performance increase after 26 minutes of napping.

STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
Stress can be beneficial. But long-term stress is always harmful. For instance, emotional stability in a family is one of the best predictors of the children performance at school.

SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
The more senses you engage the more likely you’re to remember something. Smell may be a strong trigger for memory. It’s used quite effectively by coffee houses. Think of Starbucks for example.

VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
In 3 days we remember only 10% of what we heard but 65% of what we’ve seen.

GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
Incidence of certain mental disorders varies greatly between genders. Also, we react differently to stress: men try to get the gist, while women focus on details more.

EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.
We are able to learn, explore and create at any age.

In Google, 20% of work-time is used on projects initiated by employees on their own. As a result, 50% of new projects are born this way.

Also, you might want to browse through a small Slideshare presentation by author or watch his talk at Google below. It’s easy to see usage of his own recommendations in the speech:

2. Your Brain at Work by David Rock

With Your Brain at Work by David Rock I will not try to summarize main ideas briefly as it’s hardly possible. Instead I will just copy my Evernote notes that I took while reading it.

Speaking about note-taking, I highly recommend you to try it! It doesn’t take a lot of time to summarize a book in a couple of passages but it’s very cool to browse through them later on when most of of the material is forgotten. As I read this one in text format instead of audio, notes are few times longer than usual and not very structured because I copypasted most of them instead of writing them down on my own.

But it contains lots of brilliant insights anyway. If not interested you might just practice rolling a scroll on your mouse. 😉 Otherwise, here it is:

  • Make prioritization of your day first thing in the morning. Our mental resources get quickly and easily depleted. That’s why we often simply cannot do important things like prioritization after browsing through emails.
  • You may reduce energy spend by visualizing instead of just thinking.
  • Write things down.
  • Say no to things that aren’t priority. Very difficult, but helpful.
  • Schedule the most attention-rich tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind.
  • Schedule blocks of time for different modes of thinking (instead of for different projects).
  • As much as possible try to minimize number of things in your head at a given moment. Ideally it should be only one.
  • Split big issues in less than 4 chunks and then split them if needed. But don’t go into detail.
  • Use your basal ganglia by automating some actions, so they don’t require lots of attention anymore.
  • Get information on stage in a best possible order.
  • When you need to focus remove all external distractions completely, clear your mind and inhibit internal distractions if they come.
  • Peak performance “sweet spot” or Flow is somewhere between “under-arousal” & “over-arousal”;
  • You can fix “under-arousal” by bringing “urgency” to task (visualize result of not doing it) – norepinephrine or raising “interest” levels (visualize positive rewards of doing the project well OR have a little fun, talk to somebody, maybe about a project) – dopamine;
  • You can fix “over-arousal” by writing ideas down OR using other than prefrontal cortex areas of your brain: focusing on senses (e.g. sounds around you) OR just taking a walk;
  • Capacity to notice what was going on in one’s internal world is called the Mindful Awareness Attention Scale (MAAS).
  • When in impasse moment try unfocusing for a while, take a break.
  • Increasing happiness increases the likelihood of insight, while increasing anxiety decreases the likelihood of insight.
  • The “insight machines” those whom Beeman can pick based on brain scans before an experiment, are those who have more awareness of their internal experience. They can observe their own thinking, and thus can change how they think. These people have better cognitive control and thus can access a quieter mind on demand.
  • Insight model: ARIA stands for Awareness, Reflection, Insight, and Action.
  • A good way to simplify a problem is to describe it in as few words as possible. Saying to yourself, “I want more energy” is better than saying, “I want more energy to focus more on my work and family and make time for exercise and fun.”
  • Insights occur more frequently the more relaxed and happy you are.
  • Focus on the connections between information rather than drilling down into a problem; look at patterns and links from a high level rather than getting detailed.
  • Instead of becoming more self-aware by meditating on a mountain, you can do so while you work.
  • Stimulated limbic system & increased adrenaline when you experience fear might make you feel focused and therefore more confident in your decisions, when your ability to make the best decisions has actually been reduced.
  • Labeling bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.
  • Successful people learn to harness deep stress and turn it into eustress, thus enhancing prefrontal cortex functioning.
  • People will always pay lots of money at least to feel less uncertain. That’s because uncertainty feels, to the brain, like a threat to your life.
  • It appears that the perception of choice may be more important than diet and other factors for health.
  • Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved.
  • Series of studies shows that reappraisal generally has a stronger emotional braking effect than labeling, thus it’s a tool for reducing the impact of bigger emotional hits.
  • I like to think of humor as a type of cheap reappraisal.
  • Find ways to create choice and a perception of autonomy wherever you can.
  • You can reappraise by reinterpreting an event, or reordering your values, or normalizing an event, or repositioning your perspective.
  • A general feeling of expecting good things generates a healthy level of dopamine, and may be the neurochemical marker of feeling happy.
  • Practice noticing what your expectations are in any given situation.
  • A feeling of relatedness is a primary reward for the brain, and an absence of relatedness generates a primary threat.
  • Deciding someone isa friend also generates a toward emotional response, which provides more space on your stage for new ideas.
  • When you interconnect your thoughts, emotions, and goals with other people, you release oxytocin, a pleasurable chemical.
  • Research within the positive psychology field shows there is only one experience in life that increases happiness over a long time. The one thing that makes people happy is the
  • quality and quantity of their social connections. Happiness is not just a good dose of dopamine, but a nice oxytocin buzz, too.
  • Anytime you meet someone new, make an effort to connect on a human level ASAP to reduce the threat response. Become friends with people you work with by sharing personal experiences. Encourage people around you to do the same.
  • So an increasing sense of fairness increases your levels of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Living in a world that appears unfair affects people’s cortisol levels, their well-being, and even their longevity.
  • You can elevate your status by finding a way to feel smarter, funnier, healthier, richer, more righteous, more organized, fitter, or stronger, or by beating other people at just about anything at all. The key is to find a “niche” where you feel you are “above” others.
  • And here’s a really big idea: one way you might play against yourself could be to work on improving your capacity to catch your brain in action. You could practice getting faster at things such as labeling and reappraising, reading other people’s states, or developing a quiet mind when needed.
  • Think about what it feels like when you interact with someone who makes you notice what’s good about yourself (raising your status), who is clear with his expectations of you (increasing certainty), who lets you make decisions (increasing autonomy), who connects with you on a human level (increasing relatedness), and who treats you fairly. You feel calmer, happier, more confident, more connected, and smarter.
  • Reduce status threats in others by giving people positive feedback.
  • “You know what. Don’t worry about what the problem is. It ‘s not that useful. I’m sure you did your best. Let’s think about what we can both do here to rescue the situation. I’m not going to give you a hard time. Let’s work together on this, okay.”
  • “Tell me what your goal is here, in one sentence.”
  • “What solutions have you already tried?”
  • “Might there be others solutions we haven’t thought of?”
  • Sometimes reducing a problem to one short sentence can be enough to bring about insight on its own.
  • The trouble is, the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t work well with adults. Adults can recognize that someone offering goodies is trying to change them, and they class that person as a threat.
  • Creating systems and processes that require people to talk about a project regularly can be as simple as bringing an idea up once a week and having people share their
  • thoughts. Ideas, and brain circuits, come alive in conversation.

Traditionally, I embed video of author’s speech @ Google. BTW you might find his presentation on TEDx as well.


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