Brains, Sleep and Learning*
Bill Long 11/24/06
The Evolution of Dr. John Medina
[*Here is a review of his Dr. Medina's 2008 book entitled The Brain Rules]
I derive occasional joy from reading alumni magazines. Three of them normally come into my home, only one of which is from a university I have attended (Brown). The other two are the alma mater of my daughter (U of Oregon) and ex-wife (Seattle Pacific). Both of these women no longer live with me, but I happily receive their magazines. I think I like alumni magazines because they are optimistic productions: they emphasize what people from that school have done or are doing in the world, and how they feel that the education they received "At Good Old Siwash"* was helpful in launching them into their "world changing"
[*George Fitch wrote a book so entitled in 1911 to spoof as well as to characterize seriously the life at a small private college in the first decade of this century. Approximately 1-2% of Americans were privileged to attain a private college education in those days.]
activity. The lead article in the latest issue of Response, the alumni magazine of SPU, concerns the university's new Brain Center for Applied Learning Research. The brainchild of Prof. John Medina, formerly the director of the Talaris Research Institute, which provided content for PBS' reports on child and brain development issues, the Center hopes to bring together educators and brain researchers in fresh ways that will not only lead to enhanced understanding of the brain, but will aid the educational process.
Medina's Brain Rules
In his article promoting the opening of the Center, Dr. Medina wrote about the role of sleep as an enhancement of learning. This idea, he suggests, was not really on the research agenda a decade ago but is now being more widely accepted. We need sleep not because "we are tired," but so that the brain's processing functions can work in relative isolation and then help "solve" the conundra of the previous day. With this interesting suggestion in front of us (yawn, I think I am tired...), I also ran across his twelve "brain rules," rules or principles that guide and help to define his brain research in education. Interestingly enough, in a few of his papers that I came across online from 2003 he talked about nine brain rules. Thus, he has added a few in the intervening three years, though some of the 2003 rules have been refined or, in one case, discarded. I think it would be helpful to look at his 2003 rules and then his 2006 rules, as an indication of how he conceptualizes the importance of brain research to aid learning today.
I then will make one comment that isn't critical just of Medina's work but of the subject of brain research in general--it focuses on children. I have found, from my personal experience and from interviewing others, that some profound changes happen in our brains around age 50--in our approach to knowledge, our deepening and ability to remember/integrate knowledge and our ability to place knowledge in more sophisticated moral contexts. But I am getting ahead of myself--so without further adieu, to the rules.
Medina's Nine Brain Rules (2003)
Here are the 2003 "rules."
1. Meaning Before Detail. Maintenance of focused attentional states may be directly proportional to the emotional content of the subject. People remember meaning before detail. MY NOTE: This seems really to be two rules--we need to learn basic principles before we learn details AND the emotional content of a subject aids us in learning it.
2. Every Brain is Different. Every brain is wired differently from every other brain, individually processing information in ways unique to that wiring.
3. People are Natural Explorers. Brains use modified forms of hypothesis testing to process information. This tendency can be observed in early infancy and is probably genetic.
4. Sleep is Important to the Learning Process. Sleep states are as important to the learning process as awake states.
5. Repetition is Critical for Memory. Repetition and rehearsal are critical for the successful creation of long-term memories.
6. We are Visual Learners. Half of the human cortex is devoted to the processing of visual information. We process visual infomration more effectively than any other type.
7. Focused Attentional States Facilitate Learning. People do not learn from continuous long stretches of linearly supplied information.
8. Exercise Aids Learning. Moderate, regular exercise positively affects human learning and buffers against the harmful cognitive effects of stress.
9. Stressed Brains Don't Learn Very Well. Stressed brains do not learn the same way as non-stressed brains.
The next essay will compare his current twelve rules with the nine rules of 2003. Before we get there, however, I have one observation. How are these rules derived? From examination of the brain and from measuring its synaptic and neural processes or from observation of the way that people seem to be able to learn when subjected to different situations? It would seem that most of these principles can be derived from simple observation of people or from long experience in the classroom. When you see students fall asleep in lectures (# 7), though now they make believe that they are following you but, in fact, are playing fantasy football or ordering airline tickets on the Internet, you can infer that one-way conversations don't work very well, either in intimate human relationships or in classroom settings. Again, knowing that exercise supplies additional adrenaline to the body, we could easily come up with rule # 8. His rule on the importance of sleep states for learning is interesting, and will also be repeated in 2006.
Well, let's turn to the 2006 rules now.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long