Dr. John J. Medina: What Every Business Person Should Know About the Brain

Dr. John J. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist with special research interests in the isolation and characterization of genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. He is founding director of the Talaris Research Institute, a nonprofit research center focused on the science of infant brain development and the transformation of such investigations into practical tools for parents and educators.

Prior to founding Talaris, Dr. Medina was a private research consultant to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, faculty member of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and special assistant to the provost at the University of Washington.

Dr. Medina was recognized as the Merrill Dow/Continuing Medical Education National Teacher of the Year, Outstanding Faculty of the Year at the College of Engineering, University of Washington, and was a two-time recipient of the Bioengineering Student Association Teacher of the Year. His communication interests have extended to K-12 education. Congruent with these interests, Dr. Medina has been a consultant to the Education Commission of the States and a regular speaker for state legislatures on issues related to neurobiology and education.

Dr. Medina’s books include The Outer Limits of Life and Uncovering the Mystery of AIDS, published by Thomas Nelson; The Clock of Ages and The Genetic Inferno: Inside the Seven Deadly Sins published by Cambridge University Press; Depression: How It Happens, How It Heals and What You Need to Know About Alzheimer’s, published jointly by CME, Inc. and New Harbinger Press; and Of Serotonin, Dopamine and Antipsychotic Medications by HMR Press.

A professional animator and graphic artist before embarking on a scientific career, Dr. Medina has a lifelong interest in how the brain reacts to and organizes information from a variety of inputs. These interests have extended to education, and as a father of two children under the age of eight, to parenting issues as well.

Dr. Medina has been a frequent on-air commentator for radio and television, including appearances on CNN, NBC, and CBC. He speaks often to state legislatures, school boards and psychiatric conferences.

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Ethix: John, you have said that stress impacts peoples’ ability to perform in business. Why is this?

John J. Medina: Before answering that question I need to say that there are three reasons why stress is really tough to measure in the laboratory. So when you’re asking questions about how does stress change productivity it must always be seen through that lens.

1. It’s very, very difficult to self-report on stress and aversive stimuli when somebody thinks one event is the most wonderful thing they’ve ever done, and the other thinks it’s the most stressful thing they’ve ever done. The example I usually use is parachuting: some people think it’s the best thing in the world to fall out of a moving airplane at 10,000 feet and others wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. So what is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another person and that’s difficult to define if you want to get at stress and measure it.

2. The physiological signatures of intense pleasure and intense stress are very similar. So you can’t necessarily take a physiological measure of somebody, look at that panel and say, “Oh yes, this person was absolutely stressed, and this person was not stressed at all.”

3. There are certain types of stress that actually help learning, at least for a little bit. I call it the “sweet spot.” I think some people would call it cognitive dissonance. However, some stress can aid and abet your ability to encode long-term information and a whole range of other cognitive processes.

So you’ve got the Big Three. You’ve got problems with self-report, and even within that there are difficulties, there are problems with the physiology, and then there are problems with the fact that sometimes stress helps you

Stress and Control

You said that some types of stress help, for a short term anyway. Do those same types of stress over time become disruptive or detrimental to learning?

Perhaps we could talk about how stress is measured in the laboratory and then answer your question that way. You have to have an aversive stimulus—it has to be reported as aversive: something’s wrong, this is a problem. It has to be reported physiologically—your body has to respond to it, it can’t be neutral; you can’t have neutral reactions here. Finally, and this is the answer to your question, you always assess the level of control the person feels over the aversive stimulus coming at them. If they feel like they can control the level of stress coming at them, they may not even report it as stressful. It may be slightly aversive, but it’s not obnoxious: “No, I don’t get stressed over this. I can just deal with it.” But if you could just watch the “control-o-meter,” as people begin to feel like they have less and less control over the aversive stimulus coming at them, they begin to respond in ways that actually can hurt the brain. And this is where stress now becomes aversive and dangerous. This is where you begin to lose the ability to process information effectively. So the less control somebody feels over an aversive stimulus, the more likely their productivity is to be affected. I find that extraordinary.

Would it be possible that this is control where control is perceived to be possible? Let me give you an illustration. One CEO we talked with said, “Working in the stock exchange is a very stressful environment. But that’s the reason people take these jobs, because there is a lot of stress, and it’s from ‘out there.’ ” But he said, “My job as CEO is to control the level of stress that comes within the organization, because this is a stress that can be controlled and if we can control that, people can live with the other kind of stress.” Does that fit the pattern of what you’re saying, that here’s a stress that is not controllable and I couldn’t hope to control it, so I can live with it—but here’s one that I know I ought to be able to control and I can’t, and that’s bothersome?

Well, I think so. I think what the data says is that what you want to avoid is what Marty Seligman terms “learned helplessness.” You don’t want to have a situation where there is just no control over it, so people just shut down. If you take a look on the landscape of your life (and this is stress points data that was actually developed at the University of Washington), the total landscape can profoundly affect the control they feel like they have over their life. Let’s say they have a really great job and they have a lot of control over a budget and they’ve got a lot of autonomy, but their marriage is in the tank. Okay? They may not be performing well simply because they have other parts of their lives out of control. Or it could be vice versa, that their marriage is going well, their kids aren’t on drugs, and everybody’s doing just fine, but the boss is very tyrannical. You have to make an assessment as to what is more dominant within the person’s life, to begin to understand if there’s going to be particular stressors that are going to be negative in their life or not.

Brain Damage from Stress

So it is likely that somebody who’s a middle-level manager then would experience more stress than someone who’s an executive-level manager, and presumably has more control over organizational decisions and outcomes, even though the environment for the two managers might be identical?

Yes. And when this stress happens, the damage that occurs is extraordinary, and can be divided into four areas. When people begin to feel out of control, they begin to lose the ability to problem solve. Their ability to pattern match, and being able to understand consistencies within particular patterns and to be able to work those, a form of problem solving, also begins to go down. Their ability to encode short-term memory, to acquire pieces of information and hold them for a period of time, diminishes. And their ability to take that memory, which they do keep in short-term for a period of time, and recruit it for long-term storage, also is diminished. In almost every way you can think of cognitive talents that are necessary in a business setting, stress that is directly the result of people feeling out of control hurts productivity—especially that of creative, smart people who don’t have repetitive jobs and actually require a certain amount of problem solving ability in their jobs. This would significantly damage business productivity. This is illustrated in the graph below.

Managing Stress

Two questions flow from that, and they’re really the same question dealing with the responsibilities of leaders at different levels. What should those who are in middle-level management positions do? How can they personally improve the way that they might deal with an aversive environment where they may not have control over decisions that are made? And what should executive leaders do to minimize or mitigate the effects of stress for the people below them in their organization?

Well there are two answers to that, and the first is kind of a flip one. The statement for children is, “Choose your parents wisely.” Similarly, you should choose your bosses wisely. It is incumbent upon employees to understand the kinds of people they respond well to and the kinds they don’t, and look for those people in teams or in management that they would respond well to. In creating the right environment, you have to give people not only the feeling of control but the fact of control, so that there is a strong sense that they can have control over aversive stimuli and so far as it’s possible, control over a given situation. I think that’s the magic of the conversation with Dennis Bakke (Ethix 35). As a leader, everywhere he could, this guy was just ceding his territory! The magic that he created worked, because he was allowing people in the organization to have control.

I’ve heard some bosses say this: “There is nothing like a little fear to manage the workplace because it keeps people in line.” But while it may keep people in line it would increase stress and impact productivity.

Well, the data would suggest that we weren’t built to handle chronic stress. In the ten million year evolutionary history in which our brains were developed, we were selected to handle lots of acute stress throughout the course of the day, and in very small chunks. The saber-toothed tiger either ate you or you ran away, but it’s all over in a minute! And then you can have the next saber-toothed tiger maybe two hours later and so on.

Then you overlay civilization, which is an artificial construction of humankind, and find that the brain’s abilities may be compromised. There’s nothing that has adapted the brain to the business setting—it’s still thinking it’s back out in the jungle. In the business setting, if you have a bad boss (or if you’re in a bad marriage), this saber-toothed tiger can be at your door literally for years. And when that happens you begin to see parts of the brain’s information processing machinery break down. You begin to see a chronic deregulation occurring over a long stretch of time, so severe that it often results in psychiatric disorders.

So Marty Seligman’s great contribution to the idea of learned helplessness is that depression can occur to you from the outside-in. It doesn’t have to be genetic, from the inside-out. And I think that’s important. If we really weren’t built to adapt to long-term stress, any management style that would introduce a level of fear over the long term is probably not brain-friendly and is probably dooming subordinates to suboptimal performance. That would be my opinion.

Would you say that this is truer in today’s primarily knowledge-based work setting, than it might have been in the assembly line where every person did a single task with little brain connection?

And not just assembly line work, but in those places that have a physical activity. The more physical activity you can introduce into a person’s life, the more capable they are of handling particular types of stressors. So you’re right, if you’re just sitting at a computer the whole day dealing with the types of stressors that are toxic to brain development, you are more likely to have a toxic event. And if you need to use your mind on the job, it will have more of an impact on the work.

So two answers to Denise’s question: “What do you do about it?” One is, you try and create an environment that has less stress.

Yes, less chronic stress.

The Role of Exercise

And the second is …

Exercise! A fairly strenuous cardio workout has extraordinary benefits. To say why, there are some biochemicals we should talk about. Inside your brain, is an organ called the hippocampus. It means “seahorse,” and it looks a little bit like a comma (see the picture). The hippocampus has the extraordinary job of converting short-term information into long-term information; it helps control memory. Deep within the hippocampus are cells that have responsibility for this activity, and the cells themselves have some very interesting internal mechanisms inside them that are unbelievably sensitive to stress. Most of this work has been done in laboratory animals, though the human story is fairly consistent.

Here’s what appears to occur. When you are stressed, one of the things that happens is the adrenals, on the back of your kidneys, squirt out stress hormones that go right to your brain, specifically to your hippocampus. They are literally toxic to the cells that control the conversion of short-term memory into long-term memory, and they target and kill these cells. But, inside those very same cells lies a protein, called BDNF—brain-derived neurotrophic factor.

BDNF is a stress hormone’s worst enemy. When the stress hormones come, they bind to the BDNF and the BDNF kills the stress hormones! Here’s the kicker: you only have a limited amount of BDNF in your brain, and it’s built to handle, guess what? An acute amount of stress! So a little bit of cortisol (the stress hormone) can be handled, but it is not built to handle overwhelming years of built-up stress. So if you are in a stressful situation where the cortisol is continually flooding into your brain, you literally can do brain damage because you can overwhelm the BDNF. Now here’s a very interesting thing. Because it is a protein, it is made by a gene, and there are people who don’t have very much BDNF inside their hippocampus. It is possible that these people are more sensitive to stress than the people that have a lot of BDNF. God blessed them with tons of BDNF in their hippocampus and they are more stress tolerant.

Now, the reason why I bring all that up has to do with exercise, of course. What is interesting about exercise is that you may increase the level of BDNF per cell by strenuous and regular cardio exercise. No kidding. And if that’s the case, if you create more stress-tolerant brains by exercise, why aren’t there exercise bicycles in every office? And why are there not regular cardio workouts throughout the course of the day, all in the name of increasing productivity?

Now, a lot of organizations do have wellness programs, where they try to get their employees engaged in some kind of physical activity. And the primary motivation, it seems to me, for organizations to have such programs is to decrease healthcare costs, and also to increase employee satisfaction. I haven’t seen any attempt to connect such programs to productivity. Unfortunately, when organizations go through cost cutting, wellness programs are the first thing to go, because they’re seen as a sort of an add-on that you don’t necessarily need.

And in an education program, one of the first things to go if the budget is cut is physical education!

So how would you advise organizations who are trying to improve productivity, problem solving, pattern matching, and all these kinds of things that you talked about as positive outcomes of lower stress levels?

Start with your staff meeting. Cut it in half, and replace the first half with cardio exercise. Then, everybody comes in and has a staff meeting. I’m not kidding. And do that on a regular basis—you have staff meetings every day? You’d probably increase productivity simply because you’re elevating the ability to handle stress in the environment.

So the picture of Japanese businessmen doing exercise (and I say “businessmen” because they were mostly men)—did they stumble on this?

It’s possible. But I would do something even more radical. I would hold the business meeting while everybody’s exercising. I’m serious. There is a brain rule that “exercise aids learning,” and it aids it in all kinds of ways. The ten million year experiment to get this thing working in the jungle was done mostly on the move.

You had to select for problem-solving behaviors.

Exactly right, you had to; in fact it’s called Variability Selection Theory—where what you were selected for was the ability to problem-solve. And concurrent with that was constant motion.

However, no one has researched the kinds of things that can increase productivity in the acute. So we don’t know the type of exercise program that really would help an engineer. And is that different than the type of exercise program that would help a machinist? And is that different than the exercise program that would help the accounting department? Those are great questions to ask, and I think that’s a great research project.

It seems to me that the schools of business are where this research should be done. Their job isn’t just to teach skills. Maybe I think this way because I come from a medical school, where we don’t just teach students to be good doctors, we teach them to be forward-thinking scientists, and to try and improve the field, and to move it forward, and be creative. The Nobel laureates in the medicines and physiologies, I think, are a direct result of that creativity. I don’t see it evenly spread across the academic landscape, to be blunt. A scientifically creative individual in a business school could look around and see things that weren’t working in their particular business and say, “Here are a few things we can test! Let’s try it.”

Brain Science and Learning

Okay, John. We’ve talked a little bit about stress, exercise, and productivity. Most of your thinking has gone into the application of what happens to the brain with education. Would you like to elaborate a little bit on what you’ve learned through the scientists connected with Talaris?

The general thesis statement is really straightforward. I believe that education is about brain development. The simple experiment to prove this is to remove someone’s brain and see how much they learn! Brains develop when you educate them, and I believe that educators should know more about this fact, and the ins and outs of this fact, than any other segment of our society. Because it’s their job.

So, if you are a teacher, you are in the business of brain development and you should know something about the organ you’re affecting. Unfortunately, they generally do not know what effects they’re having on their students’ brains, except in a stochastic, random sort of way. It’s one of the reasons why I think good teaching currently is not portable. I think it could be, but it’s not.

I believe that education is where medicine was around 1840-1850, where there were all these competing ideas about how the body worked: the four humors of the Greeks, Mesmer, and hypnotism and lots of strange things. And good old Robert Koch comes along—my personal hero—and says, “I believe that the body follows the same rules of physics and chemistry that we’ve been studying in other physics-and chemistry-related fields. And if we apply those principles, thus triggering the tools of the scientific method to body processes, in this case infectious diseases, then we may transform the field.” This is exactly what happened. He created the Koch’s Postulates, which are so robust and so scientifically pristine, we still use them. Louis Pasteur gets ahold of them, and others, and the field of medicine was transformed from a series of opinions into a science. A lot of business is communication between two brains. The brain itself has a performance envelope. And you can understand that performance envelope, or you can ignore it, but you’re not going to change it. It is what it is, and it is what it is because of the genes inside that head. And that’s the philosophy in the research that we have funded, and in the kind of research we do. And it is certainly my own point of view too.

And so you believe that education could be radically different than it is today, if it were transformed by understanding how the brain really works?

Eventually, but let’s be clear. Brain research has not advanced to the point where it could say anything to classroom practice. And yet there’s a contradiction, which I think of from an intellectual integrity viewpoint. If you are about education you study a brain just like a geologist studies a rock. I’m a molecular guy who studied brains for a long time so I have a really prejudicial lens; I think that if you are in the study of education, part of that effort involves understanding the substrate you are charged with learning about. And teaching others about! We don’t, and I consider that a shame. In fact I consider it a travesty.

So you’re changing that.

We’re attempting to, yes. Educators and brain scientists don’t talk to each other. So it is absolutely the case that the distance between a neuron and a chalkboard is so huge, you may responsibly describe it in astrophysical terms. They don’t have the same vocabulary. You know, brain scientists don’t know anything about education, and there’s a lot of great education that they could learn about, from years of classroom experiences. The people in education could learn a lot from brain scientists about how brains work, but to do this you would have to solve two problems. Number one, you have to do research together. That’s the only thing you can do. The field of brain science is simply not mature enough to influence what we do in our classroom practice. And it’s not mature enough not just because it hasn’t been researched. When the research is done, number two, you’ve still got to implement it, systemically, somewhere. You’ve got to figure out the best way to take this great knowledge and make the transformative changes. That itself, in my opinion, is a research question. It’s a complicated step that may not produce fruit for two hundred years. It took a hundred years in medicine, from the time Koch suggested the body would follow to rules of physics and chemistry to the time medicine was transformed. It must start with brain scientists and educators getting together. Actually, brain scientists and business people should get together, too.

People don’t come out of school with all of the skills necessary to do their job. And even if they did, their job would dramatically change over time for many reasons. So learning is vital to business.

Yes, and business is about communication as well. I’ve watched in business meetings where very important information is being conveyed, and presented so poorly that you can actually watch brains check out ten minutes after things get started. If you ask the question about the retention rate in those staff meetings, it’s probably what it is in a modern classroom—it’s about 10 percent. On average. Six months after the learning event, for declarative pieces of information.

Meaning Before Detail

So you’ve laid out some principles that you would apply in the classroom for improved learning. Why don’t you share those and let’s see if we can build a bridge to a business.

Sure. I think the bridge is direct, insofar as business is a learning environment, a knowledge transfer environment where two humans together will transfer their information. We won’t have time to talk about all nine of the brain rules, so we’ve listed them below. But let’s talk about some of them.

9 Brain Rules

There is an institutional estrangement between the worlds of education and the brain sciences. Part of the reason for this gap is that brain scientists and educators do not readily collaborate on projects related to optimizing learning experiences. There are professionals interested in how brains process information and there are professionals interested in enhancing teaching — yet very few research enterprises attempt to integrate their efforts. One is left only with the usual call for collaborative research and a few modest research ideas. Don’t let the title fool you. These “rules” only outline areas of inquiry areas where brain scientists and educators might reasonably do research together, were they ever to form productive collaborations.

The previous sentence is not meant to be hopeless, of course. Such research ideas could serve as focal points where future collaborations could materialize, were educators and brain scientists ever to start an investigative dialogue. Shown below are nine facts about human learning well established in the “brain” literature, facts which may in the future serve as organizing nuclei for such a dialogue. These calls for research should not be confused with recommendations for good teaching, however. They simply define areas of potential scientific collaboration. Until these worlds decide to speak to each other, no such recommendations are possible.

Maintenance of focused attentional states may be directly proportional to the emotional content of the subject material to be learned. People remember meaning before they remember detail.

Every brain is wired differently from every other brain, individually processing information in ways unique to that wiring.

Brains use modified forms of hypothesis testing to process information. This tendency can be observed in early infancy and is probably genetic.

Sleep states are as important to the learning process as awake states.

Memory is not fixed at the moment of learning but takes a long time to develop its permanent form. Timed repetition and rehearsal are critical for the successful creation of long-term memories.

Half of the human cortex is devoted to the processing of visual information. We express a preference for and process visual information more effectively than any other type.

People more elaborately process and prepare for long term storage information that holds their attention.

Moderate, regular exercise positively affects human learning and buffers against the harmful effects of stress on human cognition.

Stressed brains do not learn the same way as non-stressed brains.

One is, brains process meaning before they process detail. “Meaning” can be subdivided into three categories:

1. Can I eat it? Will it eat me? It’s an energy resource question. Brains pay a ton of attention to their energy resources. It’s a survival issue. By the way, I should probably couch this whole thing in saying that I consider the brain to be the par excellence example of a survival organ. It is the most sophisticated, most facile, most interesting survival organ that any biologist has ever uncovered. But because it is a biological piece of tissue, it follows the rules of Darwinian selection. You can actually see it behaviorally. People pay a lot of attention to threat. And if you don’t think it’s a threat, you ignore it, or you begin to ignore it. So that’s one thing, a threat is meaningful.

2. Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me? We pay tons of attention to reproductive issues, which is the second Darwinian step, the ability to project genes into the next generation. What that triggers generally, is pleasure. And people pay a lot of attention to things that give them pleasure.

3. The one which I think is the most extraordinary of all can be couched in the following question: Have I seen it before? We are terrific pattern matchers. “Wait a minute, I just saw that! Oh my, look at that!” Another way of saying it is: Can I give it a context, a familiar context in the general sense? We did not care about the number of vertical lines in the saber-toothed tiger’s mouth before we cared about whether the mouth was going to clamp down on us.

I try to consciously give some form of meaning every nine or ten minutes in a lecture. I recently gave 12 lectures in 48 hours and got a standing ovation at the end of it and we could’ve kept going. It’s simply because I surrendered to this rule of the brain, rather than attempting to override it in some form with my great information. I think that should be true in business meetings too. Every nine or ten minutes something meaningful should be said, to keep the attention of the people, just so that you can win the battle of the next nine minutes.

I do consider a classroom a form of warfare that way. You’re fighting for students’ attention. Hartley and Davies showed that the average undergraduate in a college setting looks at the clock nine minutes after the lecture has begun because they want to get out of there.

It might even be five minutes for a staff meeting! So there’s a clear link then between what the brain believes to be important and what it remembers. You must convey information so that the brain can digest it.

That’s right.

And this could easily transfer to a business.

Well a great example comes from another brain rule that we are primarily visual processors. Half of the cortex, half of the brain that does most of the human types of thinking, is devoted to one sense. Isn’t that amazing? It’s devoted to vision.

Not only do we like visual processing, we like a very particular type. We pay a ton of attention to something if it’s moving. There’s a strong evolutionary reason for that. The acacia tree in the Serengeti is not moving. It’s not much a threat unless I get close to it. But if there are two waving blades of wheat, and then the next two blades start moving, and then the next two blades, I hypothesize that something is coming at me. Well, we end up paying a lot of attention to movement.

So that’s why I animate in my lectures. I also do my best to move my hands and move my body and do things, because we pay tons of attention to moving objects. It’s often described as enthusiasm. You pay tons of attention to moving [objects] and you can even show that with infants. Infants at their very earliest stages take a look and if an object is moving they pay attention to it.

Also, you don’t read a painting line by line. You have to do that for a book but you don’t have to do that for a picture. Why? Because the visual processing power in the brain is so much more powerful. You hold tons of information that come to you all at once. So what I’ve done in the classroom is that I’ve combined the visual presentation with the moving things, which you can do with animation, and I just animate every nine or ten minutes. This provides meaning. I’m actually surrendering, aren’t I? I’m just saying, “Okay, you work that way, terrific. Let me see if I can do something that would make you work that way too.” Perhaps this would work in a business setting as well, though we really haven’t done the research on how this works in either education or business.

The Importance of Sleep to Brain Function

Why don’t you share a few of the other brain rules, John.

Another one is that sleep states are as important to the learning process as awake states. There are two components of sleep that I think are very important. The first one is this: we are at different levels of awareness at different times of the day, and we do not do very well in what Broughton calls “the nap zone.” Broughton has both a circadian arousal curve, which is a biphasic curve, and he also has the sleep-awareness curve, providing sleep cues inside the brain. And they’re constantly in opposition to each other throughout the course of the day. When the flat parts of the biphasic curves meet, this is called “the nap zone.” And this is when you need to take a nap. A 20-minute nap is probably fine, everybody needs one. Nobody takes one. You’re familiar with the nap zone?

I had a sleeping bag under my desk at Microsoft, I’m very familiar ….

Exactly right. During this time, you don’t process information, you don’t solve problems very well, and all kinds of functions deteriorate. People really need to pay attention to those circadian rhythms. That’s what I mean when I say sleep states are as important to the learning process as awake states.

So organizationally, again tying this back to businesses and organizations, how can they best cultivate brain functioning, being aware of this sleep zone, this nap zone kind of phenomenon?

Don’t have a staff meeting in the nap zone. Or if you do, do something unusual. What I tried to do at a recent conference, when I knew I had to give a lecture at 3:00 p.m., was to make a play to teach about Kreb and PKA, two important elements in the molecular understanding of human memory. And I think it worked. The lines were big on the screen, and we practiced them and rehearsed them at three separate times in the lecture, to make sure that by the time it was actually time to recite them together, there would be an “aha” moment. And I think we were able to successfully transit through. But you’ve got to pull out all the stops in the nap zone, if you’re going to give a lecture then.

We’re in the nap zone now, by the way. How you guys doing? Remember we are about twelve hours past the midpoint of last night’s sleep.

I’ve got another hour to my midpoint-cycle from last night!

Okay, so what about the night part of sleep? What does that have to do with learning?

Ah yes, that’s the second great component of this idea that sleep states are as important as the wake states. Some of the details of this research are not well worked out, so I’ll give the current data and then maybe we can talk about some of the contravening work. Remember that hippocampus? There is a model about how sleep, the hippocampus, and learning all work together; and here it is.

During the course of the day it turns out that the hippocampus has a buffer of things that it has recruited for long-term storage. Generally this has happened because a piece of information has been repeated within a 90-minute interval, or it has become so meaningful that you internally rehearsed it. If something is not repeated in 90 minutes, either externally or in the mind, it is rejected from memory and is forgotten. So let’s say it’s now in the interior regions of the hippocampus.

What happens at night is something that’s absolutely extraordinary and is the answer to the question that has puzzled just about everybody until about two years ago. Nobody knows why we sleep. The intuitive answer you usually get, you can hear in everybody’s brain, “We do too, it’s because we’re tired! We need to replenish our energy!” No, when you’re asleep you are expending tons of energy. In fact your brain is more rhythmically active at night than it is during the day. The idea is that sleep isn’t an effective replenisher.

The answer may have to do with the one part of the sleep cycle that almost nobody paid attention to: when you are asleep, no sensory information is coming in to you. Your eyes are closed, your ears are stopped up, you’re not speaking, you’re not smelling, in fact, you can’t access those senses for awhile. All of your sensory information has now been shut off or at least put into the sleep mode. The hippocampus holds pieces of information it’s going to recruit for long-term storage, and it begins this journey, many people believe, at night.

The model suggests that the part of the hippocampus that accepts new inputs turns off, and another part of the hippocampus—maybe the posterior ends—turn on, and it peers inside a memory trace of what the front thought was interesting, and turns it on. Then it finds the next memory trace and turns it on. All night long, thousands of times in the night those things which you had recruited for long-term storage, you are restimulating at night. And all of a sudden it hit a group of scientists that this is maybe why you sleep. You have to sleep because you need to process this particular piece of information and if you had sensory information it would be interfering, and that’s why you sleep. That’s a sketchy summary of at least one model.

It also gives a very interesting thought about the idea of dreaming. If you are at various conscious levels of awareness during the course of your sleep, dreaming may be nothing more than hearing in on the crosstalk of various things being stimulated. Now, having said that, it isn’t just that night that you’re processing the day. Processing memory can take a long time. The definition of an unconsolidated memory is that it’s still hooked up to that very thing that’s being stimulated at night.

So people who don’t sleep adequately are short-circuiting their learning and memory processes.

And that you can show behaviorally, no model required. You don’t have to have this hippocampus story to get there. What happens is that they quit stabilizing long-term memories. In fact they don’t encode short-term very well either. Interestingly enough, you get grumpier too, on average. And people are trying to figure out exactly what that means, too. It may be that you are growling more because you are desperately trying to get some sleep. So “leave me alone, let me sleep”—that’s what a growling cue would be. It wouldn’t be “oh please come, let’s play together.” It would be “grrr … .”

So people who get, for whatever reason, less amounts of sleep than their circadian rhythm would demand, are going to have problems.

That’s right. There is true sleep deficit and sleep is not a bank. You can’t stow up a bunch of it and withdraw from it when you need it. You need regular sleep. Some people need regularly five and a half hours or whatever of sleep. Some people need more. It changes as you get older. You’ll need more sleep, and you get less of it, as you get older. It deregulates when you get older. No one understands that.

So my experiment in college was not well-founded when I decided I would try sleeping every other night, so I could get more done. I did it for a week and was a basket case by the end.

That’s why you went into math but not biology!

Right, right. Now, you mentioned just in passing that when you learn an idea, your brain takes ten years to encode this into long-term memory.

Some shorter, some longer, but years, maybe a decade.

Illustration of John Medina by Steve Harrold

Why the Resistance to Change?

Okay. Now I’ve also observed that people in organizations can have a great deal of difficulty in making changes, once they’ve established something. I call it the corporate immune system that fights off new ideas. Might it be related to the fact that you’ve now got something in long-term memory and you’re not going to change it? And it’s in memory, and so you have more difficulty in changing things than you do when you’re younger, let’s say. Is there a possible connection, do you think? I know you’re going to be grumpy about this, because you don’t have any scientific data, but … speculate with me, John.

You know me too well. Yeah, I don’t know, so this would be just prejudice.

Come on ….

Dan Schacter has a very interesting book called The Seven Sins of Memory. And in it he attempts to actually take this head-on, not thinking about business change, but about social and prejudicial thinking citing primarily the work of Gordon Alport and a few others. He says that one of the reasons why there may be prejudices (racial prejudices, gender prejudices) comes from the absolutely critical need for a brain to continually average the similar inputs it has, and then move on. You see three saber-toothed tigers, and you say, “Okay, all saber-toothed tigers are going to eat me,” and move on. Okay? You weight-average as much as you possibly can and then you collapse them, and then that gets sent off into memory. One of the reasons why it’s thought that it takes so long to get things into long-term storage so that it’s not corruptible and infinitely retrievable, is that so very few things were stable in those days. If you made something stable that wasn’t stable, you could have a series of impressions that were increasingly wrong in a year’s time. You would have a completely different worldview of your environment, that wasn’t a correct one, unless it was supple, unless it was constantly subject to amendment and to change. Here you have this odd and contradictory balance of needing to be flexible pitted against the need to quickly summarize and move on.

And so what Dan Schacter thinks, is that when you get three or four different data points that you think are true, you will then go ahead and make it true and send it off to its long-term memory, to its expensive neuro-real estate, and hold it, because you have to move on. There were too many other things that you had to worry about in the variability of the environment. Ergo, in his view, prejudices.

Now let’s take this to business. If you’ve always done things a certain way it’s a little bit like averaging. Something may have happened to you enough that you commit it to long-term memory and move on. At this point, you become extraordinarily resistant to change, simply because it was so hard-fought to get the idea there in the first place. And your brain is a great husband of resources. Now, Dan thinks that there’s something to that, and he’s no slouch.

In a business there is always learning to do because the world is changing. You have to fight this immune system, or this fixed long-term memory and get over the prejudices in order to change, but what would you recommend for companies to keep the learning alive?

As you know, I am absolutely 100 percent in love with curiosity. I love the fact that new has never been a threat to me. It drives me nuts if I don’t understand something, and I’d love to be able to understand that.

People never react to change, they react to loss. That I know. And they never react to alterations, they react to threat. If change can make certain things better and those affected can be convinced of that, as you have often so eloquently said, they’ll move. But if they think there’s a loss, and since change always brings the ability to lose something, then another thing is triggered (that’s going to take years for us to talk about).

It depends, in my view, on how you were raised! If you were raised in an environment that was continually threatening to you with an abusive mom or dad, or just in a hostile marriage, it can be very difficult for you. If there was a perception that the world was not fundamentally safe, and that perception is probably fully nailed down in the first five years of life, then when you get into an organization, you are going to look at loss and say, “I got the message a long time ago, it isn’t safe out there.” On the other hand, if you were raised in an environment where it was safe, and you got that, and you really knew that, then you knew that change wasn’t going to hurt you. My guess is that you’re going to be more liable to roll with it, and to be flexible and maybe to be more productive.

So it’s really funny to think the business productivity as a human resource issue may be fully answered in the first five years of life! My guess is the most productive employees have that sense of flexibility because it’s safe. They know things work. And it’s really funny to think that a good marriage while growing up may make the best business. And it’s really weird to say that, but I say that and even plant the flag of neuroscience on it, that if you really want to have a productive economy, make sure the home in which future employees are being raised is emotionally stable.

Implication for Hiring and Selection

What interesting implications that has for HR and selection processes.

True. Let’s go further to promotions. There is a certain type of depression that is triggered by elevated stress hormones, and some people have it genetically. If a candidate CEO has that profile, and he or she gets into a stress situation and that stress triggers a depression, he’s not going to be a very productive CEO. So don’t put that person in a stressed position.

That raises some troubling moral issues in terms of what’s within a person’s control and what isn’t, and then what kinds of criteria are used or not used in making personnel selection decisions. Is that okay?

We should talk about a protein called 11-betahydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase, type 2. It’s a big old mouthful of a word for something really interesting, but, it can have extraordinary implications. And it’s a little scary because here’s the ultimate nightmare of brave new world. We don’t know if stress hormones cross the placenta, or not, during pregnancy. But the baby apparently knows, because it’s got 11-betahydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase, and it’s sitting there, waiting for the maternal stress hormone. And if it comes it’ll do just what BDNF does to a stress hormone: kill it, so it can’t cross, presumably because damage could be done.

But here’s the interesting thing: you look at the placenta, some women have a ton of this protection; some women don’t have as much. The idea is that some babies may be really vulnerable to maternal stress and some babies may not. And so the question you can ask is, if that’s the case, it’s very possible that in the future you could tell some women during their pregnancy, “Go ahead and jump out of an airplane, even in the eighth month of life, because you’ve got a bulletproof kid. It’s not going to be a problem.” On the other hand, you might say to some, “Don’t get a hangnail.” Right? Because of the stress. And if that’s the case you can screen for the placenta and see who’s going to be stress-tolerant and who will be sensitive twenty years later. That’s coming, ladies and gentlemen!

So far what you’ve talked about in terms of brain function really is explicitly cognitive function. But in the last decade or so we’ve seen a lot in the business press, particularly about emotional intelligence and how that plays out in the business world. What does that have to do—what do we learn from brain functioning that helps us understand how and why some people are more or less emotionally intelligent?

Mmhmm. In the first place I consider cognition and emotion to be artificial distinctions. It’s just patterns and neurons you’re polarizing. They have very particular functions. So you can ask the question: why do emotions exist? If you’re Antonio Damasio you think there’s only two. One is pain and the other is pleasure. And that the mixture—you can have nuances of that—with the mixtures of those give rise to what he calls “feelings.” And it is the feeling that we often think of as emotions. So at the base level it’s a survival kind of issue. I believe that—this isn’t a brain rule and I can’t prove it—but I actually believe we’re primarily emotional learners. We have strong emotional reactions to pain and pleasure. And pattern matching. We don’t do the details very well.

What you would call the emotional, I would just call it the meaning sides of what people pay attention to. This brings us to the Theory of Mind.

Only humans have it, though researchers such as Robin Dunbar and others would say other animals have approximations to it. Theory of Mind is composed of several parts but the biggest one is the ability to understand the rewards and punishment systems inside somebody else’s head. And realize that even if you can’t relate to them (these are not the rewards and punishment systems in your head), that doesn’t matter. It’s the rewards and punishment systems in your head and I need to take those seriously. Because they’re yours. It’s developing an understanding of the intentions of somebody else.

And this may have something to say about business and management, touching on the idea of emotions. I think good managers have strong Theory of Mind capabilities. I just think of it is this strong ability to do two things: to understand rewards and punishment systems inside someone else’s head, being able to extend yourself; and understand that that’s different from you. The Medina Third Law of Communication is, “What is obvious to you is obvious to you.” Some people would like to say that this is emotional intelligence.

Okay, in that context, if humans have this Theory of Mind, how can you better develop it in yourself? How are you able to better observe and figure out what is reinforcing or punishing to other people, and then act appropriately?

I think some of it can be trained, but I think a lot of it is genetic, and I stand on the back, believe it or not, of certain types of autism research. Autistic kids have no ability to connect. And one of the things that they don’t do very well is give a Theory of Mind to somebody else; you must connect within their realm.

A neurobiologist was working with a pair of identical twins who were autistic, with almost no ability to connect with others. But they sat around the table giving each other prime numbers! And one would say, “3,” and then the other would say, “5.” With a smile on the face the next one would say, “7,” and the other would say, “11.” And they would just go on and on. And what was extraordinary is they could do this in four and five figures. It was just this astronomical—like many autistic kids, you know, have these unbelievable abilities. And so the neurobiologist caught onto this, even though he couldn’t recognize prime numbers past lower two digits. He sat down with the twins with a book of prime numbers and joined in their sequence, “Aah, 279,” and both twins looked at him and went like, “Aah,” smiled, and then the next one resumed the sequence.

279 is not a prime, sorry …

Oh I know, I just did the division … [laughter] …. Anyway, the strong sense of what happened is that now he’s in the club. He’s got a Theory of Mind about them. But there’s a completely disconnect towards everything else. I think some people are born with a real strong sense and I think some people aren’t born a strong Theory of Mind.

Nobody in a staff meeting wants a microphone stuck in their head to broadcast what they are thinking, but if you did, it would be unbelievably emotional and it would be unbelievably directed towards Theory of Mind. “So and so’s doing this and that, out to get my job … oh my kid just did that … .” I mean it’s all of these very strong emotional kinds of things, and we consider them embarrassing so we have a tendency to wall them off. My feeling is, managers that understand that best about their subordinates have at least a chance at being the champions of their fields. Because at least they can understand when something’s bugging someone else. And good teachers do that. Because if you know the rewards and punishment systems inside your student’s head, you know where the limits of their understanding are and you know what it’s going to take to get them to the next step. Because you can easily and quickly—and that’s key—peer inside their head.