Monday, March 1, 2010

Understanding how our brains work.

Post 436 - Research shows the human brain is built to adapt to change and focus on survival. Knowing how your brain functions is an important part of knowing yourself. John Medina has written one of the best books I’ve seen on this subject, called Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Medina is a molecular biologist and director of Brain Center for Applied Learning at the Seattle Pacific University. His "brain rules" are simple to understand and backed by solid research.

Rule #1: Exercise.
Exercise boosts brain-power. Some parts of the brain are just like a baby's and can grow new connections and strengthen existing connections. We have the ability to learn new things our entire life. So much for the "you can't teach and old dog new tricks excuse." Aerobic exercise twice a week reduces the risk of general dementia by 50% and Alzheimer's by 60%. Eight hours of cubicle confinement (without exercise) makes no business sense.

Rule #2: Survival.
As the human brain evolved, "We learned to grow fangs not in our mouth but in the head." The brain is a survival organ; its job is to keep us alive long enough to pass on our genes.

Rule #3: Wiring.
Every brain is wired differently. Various regions of the brain develop at different rates in different people and what we do in life literally changes the way it looks.

Rule #4: Attention.
We only pay attention to things that are interesting and only in 10-minute increments. So when giving a 50-minute lecture, break the lecture into five 10-minute topics starting with an overview of the subject and grabbing everyone's attention using an emotional attention grabber within the first minutes. Then, you have 10-minutes to get your message across. Repeat it often during the next four sessions and you have a chance to get the message to stick. We don't pay attention to boring things. We’re better at seeing patterns and abstracting meaning than at recording details.

Rule #5: Short-Term Memory.
Repeat to remember. Our brain isn’t like computer – it doesn’t have a hard drive to store data. "We now know that the space between repetitions is the critical component for transforming temporary memories into more persistent forms. Spaced learning is greatly superior to massed learning." If you don't repeat something you learned within 30-seconds, you'll forget it within one to two hours. Use a picture to express the idea and the likelihood that your message will stick goes from 10% to 65% over a thirty-six hour period.

Rule #6: Long-Term Memory.
Remember to repeat. There are many ways to retrieve data from long-term memory. However, we tend to mix new knowledge with the past memories so some of our most precious memories may not be very accurate.

Rule #7: Sleep.
Sleep well, think well. "The brain is in a constant state of tension between cells and chemicals that try to put you to sleep and cells and chemicals that try to keep you awake." Sleep increases brain power. The reworking of the day's residue is the essential function of sleep, and without it learning is nearly impossible. So sleep isn’t a time of relaxation for the brain. In fact, it often kicks it into overdrive. Lack of enough sleep can make you incapable of rational thought and physical action. And I’m delighted to report that Medina shows there’s a biological need for an afternoon nap.

Rule #8: Stress.
Stressed brains don't learn the same way as non-stressed brains. The perfect storm of occupational stress comes when a great deal is expected of you but you have no control over what you need to perform well. Stress damages our blood vessels, leading to heart attacks and strokes.

Rule #9: Sensory Integration.
Stimulate more of the senses. "Our senses evolved to work together - vision influencing hearing, for example - which means that we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once." Smells have an unusual power to bring back memories.

Rule #10: Vision.
Vision is the dominant sense. Our brain controls what we see (and it's not always totally correct). The processes to "see" something are very complex, and most importantly, we remember and learn best through pictures and not written/spoken words. That one insight alone should be enough to make us totally rethink the way we attempt to present to people. Most people lose their audiences after 10 minutes.

Rule #11: Gender.
Male and female brains are different. There’s a difference between the "gist dominated" male brain and the "detail dominated" female brain. There are other genetic and psychiatric differences, however these haven’t yet been scientifically connected to behavior.

Rule #12: Exploration.
We’re powerful and natural explorers. "Babies are a model of how we learn - not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion." This is not how our educational system currently works and that's something that needs to be changed.

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