Thursday, August 04, 2016

Medina - Brain Rules

Thinking big and holistic is the only way to tackle questions related to improving the effectiveness of leadership; among the most important influences in leadership is the way we protect, expand, and use our brains. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Medina, 2014) is a quick read and full of insights on how our brains function and how to get the most out of what God has granted to us in this amazing organ. Medina's web site provides a nice introduction as well.

Medina explains that from the earliest biological evidence, brains appear to have evolved to help humans survive in very harsh and changing circumstances. It was essential that the brain assisted us in solving problems, serving us in an unstable outdoor environment, and supporting us in almost constant change and motion. In addition, our human brains developed to uniquely offer us symbolic reasoning that utilized evidence and helped us relate socially to others. These unique characteristics not only allowed us to survive but to thrive. (3% into digital text)

Of the 12 principles Medina identifies, he starts the book by looking at 5 of the most important:
  • Exercise boosts brain power (rule #2)
  • People don’t pay attention to boring things (rule #6)
  • Whether you get enough rest at night affects your mental agility (rule #3)
  • We must repeat to remember (rule #)
  • We are powerful and natural explorers (rule #12)
Medina provided considerable evidence to substantiate these 5 and the rest of the 12 principles. Some of his assertions are already widely embraced. “One of the greatest predictors of successful aging, is the presence or absence of sedentary lifestyle” (8% into digital text) is one and another is that children and adolescents can focus more deeply and for a longer time if they are fit. In relation to sleep, Medina cites another researcher, Peter Tripp, who said that sleep provides the opportunity to dream, which “permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” (12% into digital text) Other sleep-related strategies Medina advocated were afternoon naps and taking the time to sleep on important and complex decisions we face. An aroused psychological state of stress does not have to be negative but it can become debilitating. In particular, sustained high levels of stress can impact our immune system or cause brain damage in areas most important to our success. Even mild stress, especially when it involves high expectation coupled with powerlessness, tends to ‘fog’ our thinking and undermine our effectiveness in responding to challenging circumstances or tough questions.

One of the most interesting points about brain functioning relates to the way the brain processes and stores information. Instead of neat, easily accessible packages of knowledge or experience, our brains break up information, storing it in different areas while also creating links across areas of the brain. Medina used the example of a musician where the motor skills required to play an instrument are in one area of the brain, the intellectual attention required to read musical notes in another, and the emotional insight required to interpret the composer’s intent elsewhere. Cross-brain activity is enhanced for musicians who study and actively play music, which then enhances their integrative capacity for other uses. Some of these other uses include greater ability to see the big picture or the ability to formulate more imaginative solutions to individual or community problems. A final positive outcome of studying and playing music is an increased emotional awareness/intelligence and a greater propensity for prosocial behavior - behavior directed for the good of a group or another individual.

Our brains encode information, initially an act of deliberate consciousness and later in effortless recall; these are examples of explicit (short-term) and implicit/procedural (long-term or consolidated) memory. An aid to driving memory deeper into the brain is to understand the relevance and purpose of the information. Using the example of music again, a pianist learns a complex piece by breaking it into parts, often working on some passages with painstaking detail for effective fingering or other technique; the relevance of complex fingering is that certain hand movements are easier than others and having a predictable and elaborate pattern can also assist in memorization.

Medina closes the book by acknowledging differences among men and women and by advocating for the importance of cultivating curiosity. Returning to the theme of our evolving brains, enhancing our willingness to pursue novel questions and increasing our discernment of innovation solutions becomes more important with humanity’s every step forward.

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