Brain Rules by John Medina

If you read only two books about the brain, Medina’s Brain Rules should probably be your second one (thanks Kapsio, for the recommendation), after Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a few months, you might remember a post I did nearly a year ago called The Broken Brain Books. Let me repeat the quote from Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open that I used to start that post:

…while it is interesting to find out [the] exact addresses [of brain functions], that information is ultimately unsatisfying. Call it the “neuromap fallacy.” If neuroscience turns out to be mostly good at telling us the location of the “food craving center” or the “jealousy” center,” then it will be of limited relevance to ordinary people seeking a new kind of self-awareness — because learning where jealousy lives in your head doesn’t make you understand the emotion any more clearly. Those neuromaps will be of great interest to scientists of course, and doctors. But to the layperson, they will be little more than trivia.

By this critique (which I wholeheartedly agree with), most ‘brain’ books are a big waste of trees. Medina, thankfully, avoids this trap, and doesn’t even mention fMRIs till fairly late into the book, and when he does, he steps away lightly from pointless fMRI-pornography. That leaves us with 12 brain rules, each of which gets a chapter. The chapter on short-term memory for instance, is titled “repeat to remember.” Well Duh! you might say. Fortunately, there are deeper insights buried within. Despite appearances, the book isn’t an exercise in providing unnecessary proofs for folk-tautologies.

The ‘Rules’ Premise

Let’s be honest. Neuroscience generally makes for extraordinarily dull pop science and stupendously ineffective self-improvement. The discipline seems to have been invented to prove Rutherford’s famous line that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Unlike other stamp-collecting sciences (like say, astronomy or entomology) you can’t even squeeze much sensory romance or sheer wonder into Exhibit A (lump of yucky gray stuff to those of us who were turned off biology by 10th grade frog dissection). You need to resort to computer science metaphors to visualize the marvelous aspects. So it is no wonder that even the most valiant attempts at making this stuff interesting succumb to the neuromap fallacy.

As self-help, the raw material isn’t very rich either. If you stick to prescriptions that soundly rest only on neuroscience, you generally get kindergarten reiterations of stuff that folk wisdom captured in 312 BC. Compared to the subtle-if-shaky snake-oil insights of psychology, neuro-self-help insights seem solid but trite. This is the reason many brain-based bestsellers like Emotional Intelligence cheerfully march beyond neuroscience, into psychology and even outright speculation, to make the stuff at least potentially useful.

So this is tough raw material to work with. Medina’s approach is to present distilled rules that, on the face of it, seem self-evident from the experiences of any normal adult. What makes them rise above banality is the effort he puts into turning your existing beliefs into interesting new behaviors.

Here is an example. Rule #1 says, exercise boosts brain power. You’d have to have incredibly low self-awareness to not have noticed this yourself. Medina adds value to such commonplace articles of faith in two ways. First, he selectively shares science nuggets that enrich your understanding of the why. In the case of Rule #1, one tidbit is as follows. While the main circulation system (those artery/vein names you learned in high school biology) doesn’t change much, apparently the tiny capillaries at the periphery that actually deliver the blood (the ‘last mile’) sprout and decay depending on the vigor of blood pumping through your body. So exercise builds out and maintains the transportation system of your body. This boosts brain power because the Oxygen-hogging brain is the organ most dependent on efficient oxygen delivery and free-radical removal by the bloodstream.

That’s interesting, but still not useful. The next leap gets you to ‘useful.’ Medina draws on our evolutionary history to point out that we probably evolved in an environment where we were walking 12 miles a day. So you get this sort of argument:

Recall that our ancestors walked 12 miles a day. This means our brains were supported on Olympic caliber bodies. I am convinced that integrating exercise into those 8 hours at work or school will not make us smarter. It will make us normal.

That to me is a truly startling and useful way to think about the role of exercise in our lives. I’ve always been unhappy with the arbitrary sounding prescriptions of officious National Nanny health organizations. Why 30 minutes a day of cardio? Why is 3 times a week reasonable (or not)?

This 12-miles-a-day tidbit, on the other hand, with the background reasoning about circulation, really forces you to critically re-examine your lifestyle in fundamental ways. Medina himself claims to have rigged his treadmill to support a laptop so he can work while walking. He even suggests that classes in schools be taught while students are walking on slow treadmills.

But if our brains evolved to depend on circulation systems whose vigor depended on 12 miles/day exercise, we are faced with a serious stretch goal. I did 30 minutes on my elliptical today, and that was maybe 2 miles. I can’t imagine being able to afford 3 hours everyday. More to the point, I’d be bored to tears. Clearly, we need to invent new work behaviors that integrate movement in a meaningful, non-disruptive way. Something better than hamster-cage like prescriptions (treadmills in offices) would be nice. Maybe a heads-up display with voice-recognition input, that you can use to do computer work while walking around the park or hiking? I remember a 10 day intense camping trip from 1996, when we did about 7-8 miles of hilly hiking a day. I don’t recall ever feeling, thinking or sleeping better.

The 12 rules aren’t all equally good. The chapter on learning (a rule framed as an assertion, “every brain is wired differently,” rather than as an imperative) doesn’t manage quite as successful a leap from relevant science to useful behavior modification.

The Rules

There is a very nice website with a lot of cool videos associated with the book, and the book itself comes with a DVD of collateral. The rules themselves, a mix of imperatives and assertions like I said, come with disarmingly cute icons (clearly Medina applied all his insights to the production of the book itself). Rather than type up the list, let me show them to you via a screen-capture from the website, which includes the icons. You really should go explore the site. Here are the rules:

Nice, huh? Apply rules 5 and 6 and commit to memory. Should serve you well as design principles for your future self-improvement efforts.

The Beyond-the-Brain Prescriptions

The one weak part of the book is the set of end-of-chapter ‘ideas’ sections, where Medina tries to suggest ways to apply the principles in social contexts, particularly schools and workplaces. This is certainly an important thing to think about. Yes, we could all individually try to build more brain-friendly lifestyles, but it would help if the larger environment had a baseline level of brain-friendliness.

But most of the suggestions fall somewhere between naive and you can’t be serious. In some cases, the writing suggests that Medina is aware of this, and is basically trying to calibrate the efforts of others, by providing examples of how dramatic interventions would need to be. But in other cases, he seems to take throwaway thought-starter ideas seriously. Still, it is a brave effort, and we shouldn’t expect him to be brilliant in a domain that really belongs to experienced organization theorists (like, ahem!, me). We shouldn’t be surprised that Michael Jordan didn’t succeed at baseball (an example he uses to make a point about learning).

All in all, five stars. Buy/read this book. Or at least watch the free videos on the site.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Venkat–

    I appreciate the time you take to read and review these great books. Well done.

    I’m curious what you think of the work of marketers like Martin Lindstrom, who use neuro-imaging equipment to try and understand the impact of marketing activities on the brain–I mean, besides the obvious ethical issues. What are the really practical applications of neuro technology to marketing, if any?

    Also, I think you might appreciate the work of Martin Ford, and his concepts of the living systems framework. He tries to map the entire context of human functioning, including motivation, with pretty fascinating practical applications, although his focus is relentlessly scientific, and rarely focused on application.


  2. Two small observations:

    1) Astronomy isn’t stamp collecting. It’s physics. Really really hard physics.

    2) Our ancestors walked a lot in pursuit of the one thing the brain needs most: Nutrition! Something we get with considerably less expenditure of energy. This is not trivia. Brains are demonstrably bigger now than they were 10,000 years ago, even though the amount of exercise required for survival is less. The answer seems to be in our increased intake of protein.

    Which rule is that?

  3. @ irv … you’re thinking astrophysics not astronomy. And agreed, that’s really hard physics. I almost went to grad school for the former, and was an amateur fan of the latter through high school, complete with telescope and constellation charts :). I actually don’t have anything against stamp collecting though. I actually find a sort of ironic pleasure in it:

    @ Chris: Am not familiar with either Lindstrom or Ford, but that certainly sounds intriguing and I’ll look it up. But to your broader point, I don’t think fMRI or other explicitly ‘neural’ approaches fundamentally change the ethics of marketing. It’s just new tools for an old game. Medina actually uses the famous Apple 1984 ad as an example of a very smart ad that pushes all the right neuro-buttons.

    Overall, will neuro-technology make marketing smarter? I think so, though in terms of bang for the buck, there is still a lot of high-value-low-hanging-fruit to be picked from disciplines like psychology and especially linguistics, and I’d probably look there for marketing innovation before worrying about what fMRIs can yield.

    I think neuro-stuff has a lot more value to add in sales than in marketing. Stuff like neuro-linguistic programming (which I admit I find a little shady) seems to apply very clearly there. But as 1:1 brings marketing and sales ever closer together, perhaps the impact of neurostuff will be amplified.


  4. Well, if it ranks with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I am going to have to get it and read it. I read that over 20 years ago and still strongly remember the pleasure and sense of insight and wonder that I had while reading it. I remember the basic content of many books, but rarely the sense of joy, thought and interest from the experience. Oliver Sacks when on is a very good writer. (BTW as entertaining as I find him I just couldn’t get excited about Robin Williams as Oliver Sack and totally skipped the Awakenings film although it was another great book.) So, I will check out Brain Rules.

    Thinking about “The Man Who…” got me thinking about other interesting books about cognition and brought to mind another one I read over 20 years ago that also left distinct memories of its’ reading. That is The Origin of Unconciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.

    Venkat I know you find creative ideas quite interesting and thought provoking. I assume you have read this one but if you haven’t I encourage you to get it and read it. His main thesis that is that until ~3000 years ago we had no self-conciousness and our minds were literaly 2 separate entities, we had no real sense of self and that our language dominated left brain influenced our actions by literally speaking to the right which percieved this as a voice from the gods, etc… It was the evolutionary value of the breakdown of this bicameral mind which only became possible with the evolution of language that lead to the formation of self-concious thought as we think of it today.

    This is one of the most thought provoking and simultaneously deeply flawed books I have ever read. His extrapolations and conclusion jumping are extra-ordinary. But what a creative and in many ways insightful idea! Truly thought provoking and you have to be careful to not throw away the baby with the literary bath water.

    It is a bit afar from the usual Ribbonfarm book review candidates – oh but what a glorious journey!


  5. Steve:

    Thanks for the reco: have heard of the bicameral mind thesis, but hadn’t tracked down the source to Jaynes. Will add it on accelerated track reading queue :)

    And the topic isn’t quite that far away from Ribbonfarm themes. I’ve written 2 longish pieces on the nature of consciousness, but haven’t developed the theme much. Mainly because I approach it from a metaphysical rather than brain-science angle, and it’s very tough stuff to write about.
    Framing the consciousness debates

    Where is I