Review: Brain Rules

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
by John Medina
published by Pear Press
this edition: 2010
size: 775KB (322 pages)
categories: nonfiction; neuroscience; cognitive psychology; schools & teaching
lending: no
simultaneous device licenses: six
part of the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: no
text-to-speech: yes
suitability for text-to-speech: good
x-ray: yes
Whispersync for Voice:yes ($7.95 at time of writing, read by the author)

“But I also believe the  curiosity  instinct is so powerful  that  some people overcome society’s message to go to sleep intellectually, and they flourish anyway.”
–John Medina
writing in Brain Rules

If you believe that your mind exists through biomechanical operations of your brain, than those actions should be both detectable and limited by physiology. If that’s the case, understanding some of those limitations could help you both cope and succeed in the world.

If you believe that what you think is independent of your body, you may still believe that there are likely patterns of behavior, and those might be useful to know as well.

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist…and a professor.

Brain Rules is backed up by science, but also by personal experience.

That’s a powerful combination.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I liked it best when it had cognitive resonance for me (when what it said confirmed what I already thought) then when it didn’t. 😉

Generally, the science was fascinating, and presented some very interesting possibilities.

For example, there is a section on a “Jennifer Aniston” neuron.  Essentially, a patient who was prepared for surgery, with the skull opened and part of the brain exposed to the air, was shown a picture of Jennifer Aniston. A specific pattern fired, showing recognition.

If this could be done without an invasive procedure, would it be possible to use it in the courts? Could you demonstrate that someone had never seen their alleged assault victim before?

Well, it’s much more complex than that, but that’s where it gets interesting.

I certainly couldn’t disagree with any of that sort of science. Where I would have other opinions is where Medina speculated.

That speculation is a lot of the fun of the book (and despite it being science-based, it’s very accessible to those without that background).

“What do these studies show, viewed as a whole? Mostly this: If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over.

In many ways, starting over is what this book is all about.”

You can believe the science and not agree with all of the interpretations.

“Because a teacher can keep track of only so many minds, there must be a limit on the number of students in a class— the smaller, the better. It is possible that small class sizes predict better performance simply because the teacher can better keep track of where everybody is. This suggests that an advanced skill set in Theory of Mind predicts a good teacher.”

I’ve trained a lot of trainers, and been a Training Manager. In hiring, one of the things I looked for was what I referred to as “empathy”, and what Medina is calling “Theory of Mind”. It’s essentially the ability to know how someone else is reacting to something, and how they are going to react…and I include the ability to adjust what you are doing to modify that result.

However, I had good evidence that simply smaller didn’t produce consistently better results, as interpreted by the students (and by own subjective experience).

We had students rate the class at the end.

We were teaching mostly software, which can be pretty complex.

There was a definite bell curve. The best average scores occurred at about eight people. Get up to fifteen, there  was undeniable negative impact. Get down to two or three, though, and there was also a negative impact.

Why negative with a smaller group?

A class isn’t taught just between the trainer and each student. There are also dynamics happening between the students themselves, and in their perceptions of how the trainer interacts with the students.

If you have eight people in a class, and a student asks a question which is off topic or which has just been answered, a couple of other students are likely to be audibly irritated…just making a “Tch!” sound (and rolling their eyes), for example.

Unless the off topic student is completely socially unaware, that tends to inhibit those sorts of questions.

If you have two students, and someone asks an irrelevant question, the other person will expect the trainer to answer it.

The interactions between the two students are too exposed to allow the risk of the “Tch!”.

That’s just a small point, though.

Generally, I think most people will find the book very interesting, even if they can’t always put all the rules into practical effect.

One very positive use of technology is that the provides summary videos (and other materials) at

I was able to watch the videos on Kindle Fire, even using Silk (although I do have Flash installed, so I can’t tell you for sure if it would work without that).

A negative use of technology? A dead index. Not only were there no links from the index, but there were no page or location numbers…just a list of topics.

The biggest negative for me was an  unnecessary spoiling of a classic movie…but I know I’m extra careful about that.

I also found it a bit odd that the book didn’t summarize the twelve rules at the end, but those are available on the website.

Overall, though, I strongly recommend this book. It has value for you as an individual, as a parent/legal guardian, as an employee, and as an employer.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

6 Responses to “Review: Brain Rules”

  1. Computer Repair Redding Says:

    “Generally, the science was fascinating, and presented some very interesting possibilities.” sometimes that is a hard reconciliation marrying science with the what if possibilities of the brain and human spirit

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    […] example, buy Brain Rules (which I reviewed early this year: Review: Brain Rules) for $8.10 (at time of writing) for someone else, and then go back and buy it for yourself for […]

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    […] Brain Rules by John Medina (Review: Brain Rules) […]

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