We see with our brains

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

Working my way through John Medina’s Brain Rules, I’ve been skipping around rather than following numerical order. The rules are a set of concepts, not a recipe.

Garr Reynolds made today’s choice easy— rule 10, “Vision trumps all other senses.” Reynolds posted about brain rules and presentations. Here’s a presentation he put together for three of Medina’s rules:


It’s good to keep in mind (no pun intended) that we don’t see with our eyes, we see with our brains. We don’t have a little movie screen inside our heads. Some of the things that Medina points out:

  • Specialized cells in the retina respond to particular aspects of the incoming photons. Some discern only outlines or edges, some only motion, and so on.
  • Similar specialization occurs in the visual cortex. According to Medina, one region responds to a line tilted at 40 degrees but not a line tilted at 45.
  • Far from being a camera, the brain deconstructs incoming information, processes it through filters, and then reconstructs “what it thinks it sees. Or what it thinks you should see.”

Your brain’s not working!

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

Well, it’s not completely true that your brain’s not working. The post’s title may have gotten it working on something new, which is one of the points in chapter 4 of John Medina’s Brain Rules: We don’t pay attention to boring things.

Paging Mr. Godot... Mr. GodotOur brains constantly respond to electricity. We convert input from the outside world into electrical charges, continuously cycling through:

  • Detecting the inputs,
  • Attending to some of them, and
  • Deciding whether and how to respond.

So, what works if we want people to attend to something? Cathy Moore has one solid answer: appeal to emotions. In some sense, our brains are managing by exception. We pay attention to things that are striking because they stand out from typical patterns.

As you’re driving your car, for example, you’re constantly monitoring for what’s out of the ordinary — even if you do most of that almost unconsciously. No unusual movement in the mirrors? No funny sound from the road or the engine? No vehicles moving much slower or much faster than the others?

Attention must be paid!Emotions can trigger dopamine in the brain, attaching what Medina calls a chemical Post-it note to the input. “Same old, same old” doesn’t make for emotional attraction.

In the effort to gain and hold attention, Medina stresses meaning before details. Our ancestors on the grasslands of Africa learned in a strict Darwinian way not to get bogged down too early in irrelevant detail.

This doesn’t mean detail is unimportant. It does mean that if you are trying to hold someone’s attention, it makes sense from the get-go to deliver relevant, big-picture meaning that matters to that person.

Medina cites research to suggest that most of the time you can expect to hold someone’s attention for a maximum of 10 minutes. (Did the folks at YouTube know this? Maybe so.) That holds some serious implications for people making presentations, designing learning, or writing blog posts.

In short, Medina suggests chucking your material into 10 minute segments and triggering a relevant emotion at the start of each chunk. I’m stressing relevant here because everyone’s seen pointless animation and heard extraneous or even distracting sound as part of an unsuccessful attempt to seize attention and never let it go.

There’s a lot of good material in this chapter — in particular, Medina’s contention that the brain can’t multitask. That’s more than I could fit into this 10 minute chunk, so I’ll make it a post on its own.

Photo of Capitol South Metro station by cursedthing / Laura A.
Photo of Post-It man by LuluP / Lucille Pine.

Learning makes sense, sense makes learning

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

In this second-to-last post about John Medina’s Brain Rules, I’m looking at rule 9, “Stimulate more of the senses.”

A good part of this chapter seems intuitively obvious; what caught my eye were things that had been less clear (at least to me).

I’d heard of synesthesia before — the odd sensory-crossing phenomenon in which a person experiences, say, the number 9 as having a flavor. Synesthetes “display unusually advanced memory ability,” Medina says. And they find their apparently odd perceptions to be pleasurable.

Synesthesia suggests that the sensory processes in the brain are designed to work together; the condition simply makes that more striking. But we evolved in a multisensory environment, and so our brains developed ways to effectively process the stimuli coming in from our senses.

Not only do the senses work together, but their combined effects can enhance their individual abilities. In one experiment, people had a hard time seeing a flickering light if its intensity was gradually decreased. Researchers coordinated a short burst of sound with the light flickering off. Subjects who had the sound as part of the experience could see the light beyond their normal threshhold.

Making sense of learning

Medina cites work by Richard E. Mayer of the University of California Santa Barbara. (He collaborated with Ruth Colvin Clark on E-learning and the Science of Instruction.)

Five of Mayer’s findings:

  • The multimedia principle: Students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
  • The temporal contiguity principle: Students learn better when corresponding works and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
  • The spacial contiguity principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near to each other rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
  • The coherence principle: Students learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.
  • The modality principle: Students learn better from animation and narration then from animation and on-screen text.

As Medina points out, these findings home deal with two senses — hearing and vision. Evidence exists that involving the other senses can also enhance learning. Certain types of memory are sensitive to smells, for example. One intriguing example suggests that the sense of smell can improve declarative memory during sleep.

Five senses photo by http://flickr.com/people/joaoloureiro/.

The hmmmm of lifelong learning

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

For this final post based on John Medina’s Brain Rules, I’m looking at Rule 12. That says, “We are powerful and natural explorers.” What Medina highlights is the way in which we learn about the world. From infancy, we’re busy figuring out what things are and how they related to each other.

When my oldest child was turning two, I came across a phrase I’ve always used in place of “the terrible twos” — “first adolescence.” The idea was that two-year-olds, like their teenage counterparts, have just acquired a clutch of physical and mental skills. They can walk, they can talk, they can form ideas and set out to put them to work. But they’re constantly running into limitations and setbacks.

Here’s how Medina sees the world to the two-year-old:

You push the boundaries of people’s preferences, then stand back and see how they react. Then you repeat the experiment, pushing them to their limits over and over again to see how stable findings are, as if he were playing peekaboo. Slowly you begin to perceive the length and height and breadth of people’s desires, and how they differ from yours. Then, just to be sure the boundaries are still in place, you occasionally do the whole experiment over again.

One tool for the miniature experimenter: the mirror neuron. This class of brain cells, discovered within the last 15 years, apparently helps us monitor activities around us and helps us plan our own activity.

So, what happens if I do THIS...?It seems clear these mirror neurons played a major role in our evolution. When we came down from the trees, says Medina, we didn’t say, “Give me a book in a lecture and a board of directors so I can spend 10 years learning how to survive in this place.”

Turning to education, Medina argues for expanding the medical school model. Med school, he says, has three components: a teaching hospital, faculty who work as well as teach, and research labs. What does this mean for the student?

  • Consistent exposure to the real world — med students constantly move through the teaching hospital, encountering real-life medical problems.
  • Consistent exposure to people working in the real world — students learn from not only the medical faculty but also dozens if not hundreds of working professionals.
  • Consistent exposure to practical research programs — students discover that the best research is an ongoing activity, that by nature it’s tentative, and that it connects to problems worth solving.

Consider the implications of this model both for how adults learn to teach and how children learn to learn better.

Years ago, I served as a Teacher Corps intern in a rural high school. Corena, he master teacher who led our intern team was also the office education instructor at the school. One of her most successful programs placed office ed students in jobs with businesses in the three small towns that comprised our school district.

So Cindy, Carolyn, and their classmates at 16 or 17 were already learning what really happens in a workplace. Some had more positive experiences than others; as their teacher, Corena would work at trying to improve the experience, or at trying to turn it into an occasion for learning.

That was a small program with the limited but very practical goal. How many other school experiences could profit from a combination of real-life experiences, guidance from trained adults, and exposure to continuing attempts to learn more?

Baby investigator photo by coreyt / Corey Thompson.