Introduction to Brain Rules for Aging Well

Watch John Medina introduce his new book, Brain Rules for Aging Well, in this video.


Announcing Brain Rules for Aging Well, in stores October 3rd

With so many discoveries over the years, science is literally changing our minds about the optimal care and feeding of the brain. All of it is captivating. A great deal of it is unexpected. You may already be experiencing the sometimes-unpleasant effects of the aging process. Or you may be deeply concerned about your loved ones who are. Either way, Brain Rules for Aging Well is for you.

Pre-order the hardcover today from your favorite bookstore and you'll get it by October 3rd.

Listen to a preview of the audiobook.


Is it true that musicians are better at detecting emotion?

There is evidence that musicians are better at detecting emotion. One of the most striking experiments involved a group of English speaking musicians and English speaking non-musicians. They were exposed to a language they could not speak - the researchers chose the Philippine language Tagalog - with speakers talking in emotionally competent ways. Watch the video.

Learn more about Brain Rules or listen to the digital audiobook on Libro.fm.


How the brain pays attention

Listen to a preview of the Attention chapter on YouTube. Get the Brain Rules digital audiobook on Libro.fm.

What’s going on in our heads when we turn our attention to something? Thirty years ago, a scientist by the name of Michael Posner derived a theory that remains popular today. Posner started his research career in physics, joining the Boeing Aircraft Company soon out of college. His first major research contribution was to figure out how to make jet-engine noise less annoying to passengers riding in commercial airplanes. You can thank your relatively quiet airborne ride, even if the screaming turbine is only a few feet from your eardrums, in part on Posner’s first research efforts. His work on planes eventually led him to wonder how the brain processes information of any kind. This led him to a doctorate in research and to a powerful idea that’s sometimes jokingly referred to as the Trinity Model. Posner hypothesized that we pay attention to things using three separable but fully integrated networks of neural circuitry in the brain. I’ll use a simple story to illustrate his model.

One pleasant Saturday morning, my wife and I were sitting on our outdoor deck, watching a robin drink from our birdbath, when all of a sudden we heard a loud “swoosh” above our heads. Looking up, we caught the shadow of a red-tailed hawk, dropping like a thunderbolt from its perch in a nearby tree, grabbing the helpless robin by the throat. As the raptor swooped by us, not three feet away, blood from the robin splattered on our table. What started as a leisurely repast ended as a violent reminder of the savagery of the real world. We were stunned into silence.

In Posner’s model, the brain’s first system functions much like the two-part job of a museum security officer: surveillance and alert. He called it the Alerting or Arousal Network. It monitors the sensory environment for any unusual activities. This is the general level of attention our brains are paying to our world, a condition termed “intrinsic alertness.” My wife and I were using this network as we sipped our coffee, watching the robin. If the system detects something unusual, such as the hawk’s swoosh, it can sound an alarm heard brain-wide. That’s when intrinsic alertness transforms into specific attention, called phasic alertness.

After the alarm sounds, we orient ourselves to the attending stimulus, activating the second network: the Orienting Network. We may turn our heads toward the stimulus, perk up our ears, perhaps move toward (or away) from something. It’s why both my wife and I immediately lifted our heads away from the robin, attending to the growing shadow of the hawk. The purpose is to gain more information about the stimulus, allowing the brain to decide what to do. The third system, the Executive Network, controls what action we take next. Actions may include setting priorities, planning on the fly, controlling impulses, weighing the consequences of our actions, or shifting attention. For my wife and me, it was stunned silence, until one of us moved to clean off the blood.

So we have the ability to detect a new stimulus, the ability to turn toward it, and the ability to decide what to do based on its nature. Posner’s model offered testable predictions about brain function and attention, leading to neurological discoveries that would fill volumes.


Physical activity is cognitive candy

All of the evidence points in one direction: Physical activity is cognitive candy. Civilization, while giving us such seemingly forward advances as modern medicine and spatulas, also has had a nasty side effect. It gives us more opportunities to sit on our butts. Whether learning or working, we gradually quit exercising the way our ancestors did. Recall that our evolutionary ancestors were used to walking up to 12 miles per day. This means that our brains were supported
for most of our evolutionary history by Olympic-caliber bodies. We were not sitting in a classroom for eight hours at a stretch. We were not sitting in a cubicle for eight hours at a stretch. If we sat around the Serengeti for eight hours—heck, for eight minutes—we were usually somebody’s lunch. We haven’t had millions of years to adapt to our sedentary lifestyle. That lifestyle has hurt both our physical and mental health. There is no question we are living in an epidemic of fatness, a point I will not belabor here. The benefits of exercise seem nearly endless because its impact is systemwide, affecting most physiological systems. Exercise makes your muscles and bones stronger, improving your strength and balance. It helps regulate your appetite, reduces your risk for more than a dozen types of cancer, improves the immune system, changes your blood lipid profile, and buffers against the toxic effects of stress. By enriching your cardiovascular system, exercise decreases your risk
for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. When combined with the intellectual benefits exercise appears to offer, we have in our hands as close to a magic bullet for improving human health as exists in modern medicine. So I am convinced that integrating exercise into those eight hours at work or school will only make us normal.

All we have to do is move.

Want to learn more about Brain Rules and exercise? Watch the exercise video or listen to the digital audiobook on Libro.fm.



Most developmental psychologists believe that a child’s need to know is a drive as pure as a diamond and as distracting as chocolate. Even though there is no agreed-upon definition of curiosity in cognitive neuroscience, I couldn’t agree more. I firmly believe that if children are allowed to remain curious, they will continue to deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 101. This is something my mother seemed to know instinctively.

For little ones, discovery brings joy. Like an addictive drug, exploration creates the need for more discovery so that more joy can be experienced. It is a straight-up reward system that, if allowed to flourish, will continue into the school years. As children get older, they find that learning brings them not only joy but also mastery. Expertise in specific subjects breeds the confidence to take intellectual risks. If these kids don’t end up in the emergency room, they may end up with a Nobel Prize.

I believe it is possible to break this cycle, anesthetizing both the process and the child. By first grade, for example, children learn that education means an A. They begin to understand that they can acquire knowledge not because it is interesting, but because it can get them something. Fascination can become secondary to “What do I need to know to get the grade?” 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.

Watch the Exploration video


“You want to get your kid into Harvard?"

Listen to the audio excerpt from the Brain Rules for Baby Relationship chapter.

For most first-time moms and dads, the first shock is the overwhelmingly relentless nature of this new social contract. The baby takes. The parent gives. End of story. What startles many couples is the excruciating toll it can take on their quality of life—especially their marriages. The baby cries, the baby sleeps, the baby vomits, gets held, needs changing, must be fed, all before 4:00 a.m. Then you have to go to work. Or your spouse does. This is repeated day after day after ad nauseam day. Parents want just one square inch of silence, one small second to themselves, and they routinely get neither. You can’t even go to the bathroom when you want. You’re sleep deprived, you’ve lost friends, your household chores just tripled, your sex life is nonexistent, and you barely have the energy to ask about each other’s day.

 Is it any surprise that a couple’s relationship suffers? It’s rarely talked about, but it’s a fact: Couples’ hostile interactions sharply increase in baby’s first year.

When I lecture on the science of young brains, the dads (it’s almost always the dads) demand to know how to get their kids into Harvard. The question invariably angers me. I bellow, “You want to get your kid into Harvard? You really want to know what the data say? I’ll tell you what the data say! Go home and love your wife!” This chapter is about that retort: why marital hostility happens, how it alters a baby’s developing brain, and how you can counteract the hostility and minimize its effects.

Get the updated and expanded Brain Rules for Baby audiobook on Libro.fm.


What have researchers learned since Brain Rules was published?

The field of brain science continues its explosive, propulsive revolution since Brain Rules was published. There are probably too many results to give a thorough account here, but I can certainly talk about some of the highlights.

One of the first is that a series of well-funded brain initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic. Groups of brain scientists are being recruited to be cartographers--examining the functional circuitry of the entire brain--at one of the smallest scales imaginable. The American version is called the BRAIN initiative, short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. It's slated to cost several billion dollars and last 10 years. The European version is called the Human Brain Project. It's a really big effort to use supercomputers to reconstruct the micro-circuitry of the entire human brain

The hope is that such functional mapping expeditions will allow scientists to study at an incredible detail--and get new insights to cure diseases ranging from epilepsy and Parkinson's Disease to brain injuries such as Post Traumatic Stress and stroke.

Another series of leaps involve making brain-machine interfaces. These include harnessing the brain's electrical energy to drive physical devices. This is useful if you are interested in making brain-responsive prosthetics. Given the number of combat injuries the U.S. military has sustained since Brain Rules was written, this is a really exciting field. Progress in deep-brain stimulation technologies--this is where you insert electrical devices into the brain to solve problems ranging from depression to obsessive compulsive disorder, have made great strides.


Brain Rules for Presenters

We know that it takes you about 10 minutes to lose an audience if you’re just giving a normal talk. So at the nine-minute-and-59-second mark, you have to do something fairly radical. In fact, you should do it within 30 seconds of your first words, but certainly at nine minutes and 59 seconds. And here is where we can get into some brain science.

I think anybody who does speeches at all ought to really understand that the brain processes meaning before it processes detail. It wants the meaning of what it is that you’re talking about before it wants the detail of what it is you’re talking about. So then the question you can ask is, from a science point of view, what does meaning mean and what do you have to do at nine minutes and 59 seconds? It’s pretty simple. When a piece of information comes into the brain, your brain immediately interrogates it with six questions right off the bat. And you can see the Darwinian roots of the brain’s processing features really clearly here.

The first question it will ask is, will it eat me? You’re going to make an assessment of threat; that’s a survival mechanism. The second question is, can I eat it? Question number three is, can I have sex with it? And it’s actually not even sex per se. It’s, is there reproductive opportunity? 

Question number four is, can it have sex with me? Questions number five and six to me are professionally the most interesting, because there’s no a priori for them. It just shows you something about how the brain learns: Have I seen it before? Or, have I never seen it before? The reason why is, the brain is an unbelievably gifted pattern matcher, and it’s looking for patterns that it’s seen.

So at nine minutes and 59 seconds, you’ve got to address one of those six questions or you’ll lose your audience. I call them hooks. I’ll give you an example. I teach second-year medical students and bioengineering graduate students. When I’m going to be talking about, say, hemispheric connections between the two [halves of the brain] — there’s an area of the braincalled the corpus callosum that actually communicates between the two hemispheres — I do not start out by saying, “The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres, and here is the afferent and efferent neurocabling that connects these two hemispheres together.”

Nope. I’ll start it out with a story. Like, there was a woman who had a really strange behavior. If you were the psychiatrist, this woman comes into the room and she sits down and she starts talking to you, and immediately her left hand grabs her throat and she tries to strangle herself. No kidding. By the way, do I have your attention? 


More links:
Attention Brain Rule 
Brain Rules for Presenters on SlideShare (thanks to Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen)
Get the Brain Rules (updated and expanded) eBook
Get the Brain Rules (updated and expanded) audiobook on Libro.fm 


How does the brain work?

How does the brain work? We have no idea. We are still in the very beginning stages of understanding most of the basics. From a researcher's perspective, it's a very exciting time to be a scientist, because you get to rummage around on the ground floor. But from an overall perspective, most of it is spooky.  

Let me give you some examples of how little we know about how the brain works. We know that you use the left-side of your brain for speech. Under normal circumstances, if you get a stroke on the left side of your brain, your speech can be greatly affected. Depending upon where you got the stroke, it could affect your ability to speak language or your ability to understand language.

There is a little six year old who suffered from something Sturge-Weber syndrome, a catastrophic brain disease. Because he had this disorder, the little guy had to have his entire left hemisphere removed. No left hemisphere, no language. That should have completely destroyed his language ability. Right?


Within two years, the little guy had regained his language abilities entirely. The right side of his brain seemed to have noticed there was a deficit and simply rewired itself to take over talking. Do we understand this?

We do not.

We do not understand how you learn a language of any kind. We don't know how you know how to walk. We don't know how you know how to read. You have a complete map of your body in your head. Actually, you have several maps of your body in your head. Some of them tell you where you are, some of them tell you how to move. One even tells you how to see. We don't know how they coordinate their information. We don't know how it knows its you - and what, if anything, YOU are. Consciousness remains a slippery fish as ever.

So you ask me how the brain works. I am happy to repeat my answer. We have no idea.

Visit brainrules.net to learn about the 12 things we know about how the brain works. These are the Brain Rules.