02 August 2011

Brain Rules

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School is John Medina's guide to some of the principles that underlie how the brain works and how we can best take advantage of those principles when living out our lives.

Even though I've read plenty of popular psychology books, I found a lot of interesting nuggets here, including:

  • How exercise boosts cognitive performance (exercise stimulates, among other things, generation of new blood vessels in the brain)
  • The mechanisms by which prolonged stress breaks down our bodies (we're evolutionarily adapted to respond to threats on timescales of seconds to minutes, not months to years)
  • The importance of the sense of vision: some years ago, brain researchers gave white wine tinted with red dye to a bunch of wine-tasting professionals and found that they described the taste and smell of the wines using the vocabulary usually reserved exclusively for red wines. The outcome of this study is frequently cited as evidence that wine connoisseurs are full of it, but Medina's (more charitable) explanation is that the way our brains are wired, the sense of sight is so compelling that vision input preempts all our other senses.

Medina's writing is occasionally a bit too cute and circuitous for my taste, and, annoyingly, some of the connections appear to be based on little more than wild extrapolation (e.g. the parts about the student-teacher relationship, or the significance of synesthesia). But for the most part the book is easily digestible and appears to be based on solid research. Medina also proposes many interesting ideas— not just suggestions about how in our lives we can better accommodate the natural limits of our brains, but also ideas for experiments that could shed further light on things.

Mildly recommended.

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