Developmental molecular biologist John Medina admits we don't know much about how our brains work. "In fact, if we ever figured out exactly...

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Developmental molecular biologist John Medina admits we don’t know much about how our brains work. “In fact, if we ever figured out exactly how it did this,” he says, picking up a soda can and sipping from it, “that would be a major achievement.”

But the Seattle scientist, in his new book, “Brain Rules” ($29.95, Pear Press), lays out 12 overarching principles — or rules — that he believes can be applied to our daily lives to help us to better teach, learn, conduct business and parent.

“What we know is that it was designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor setting and do so while we were in near-constant motion,” says Medina, who is on the faculty of the University of Washington Medical School’s bioengineering department and directs the Brain Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University.

“If you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is good at doing, you’d settle on a traditional American classroom or one of those cubicles people have to work in.”

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In fact, his rule No. 2 is, “Exercise boosts brain power.” While the terrain has been paved and the daily threats are more subtle these days, studies show that our brains still thrive on movement and that exercise boosts concentration and problem-solving. So why are physical-education classes disappearing from schools, and why don’t more employers encourage walking meetings?

Medina himself chugs along on a treadmill in his SPU office, sometimes while doing computer work. The center tests the correlation between retaining information and exercise with students in a local school district, and the Harvard Business Review named his concepts for incorporating treadmills into the workplace as one of its “Breakthrough Ideas for 2008.” In fact, he argues, the paradigm might change if brain scientists started rubbing shoulders more with educators and executives.

“Brain Rules” also states that we should respect sleep, during which the brain does valuable processing; recognize the damage done by long-term stress (listen up, cruel managers); and acknowledge that correctly timed repetition is key to lasting memory. And effective multitasking? A myth, he says. It robs focus, promotes inefficiency and causes mistakes. Talking on the cellphone while driving has caused tragedies by sapping focus and delaying reaction time.

Another of his key rules is: “The brain does not like boring things.” While all his rules are based on studies that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and then duplicated, he writes for a layperson’s ear. Because he believes the brain responds best to moving pictures and emotional content, his book comes with a humorous, sometimes poignant DVD and in tandem with an interactive Web site ( also plans an April 10 Seattle lecture.

Medina has spent most of his career as a consultant — “a troubleshooter, really” — but teaches bioengineering at the University of Washington and has won two national teaching awards. He is energetic, downright excitable when sharing the wonders of the brain. He believes the brain pays sharp attention for only about 10 minutes at a time unless it is engaged on an emotional level. So after nine minutes of lecturing, he will introduce something, often a story — like about a woman who couldn’t see vowels — that jolts listeners. It is his way to reboot attention spans and inject meaning before details.

“Students don’t recall a teacher for being so organized,” he says. “They remember the inspiring teachers. When you get that relational connection with a student, curiosity runs its natural course. The reason we can send people to the moon is that we can understand each other’s motivations. That’s emotional, not cognitive.”

Brain science has come to the masses in recent years. Computer programs put us through tasks called “brain fitness.” Blueberries and pomegranates are considered “brain food.” New York Times crossword guru Will Shortz has teamed with an MIT neuroscientist to produce a book designed to keep your brain “young.”

Medina decided to write his book, published this month, as a way to apply what he says is grounded neuroscience with real-world applications. He wanted to debunk unsupported claims that he calls “neuro astrology,” by citing studies that have been tested and advance real-world thinking.

He wants to start a conversation into how we can change paradigms.

Richard Seven: 206-464-2241 or

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