Follow-up: Connecting Brains and Business

In issue 37, October 2004, the Ethix Conversation was with John Medina, founder and director of the Talaris Institute. Today, Medina continues his brain-research work with a joint appointment between the Medical School of the University of Washington, and the Brain Center for Applied Research at Seattle Pacific University.

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Ethix: In 2004, we talked about your nine brain rules. Now you have published a book, Brain Rules with 12 brain rules. Where did the other three come from?

John J. Medina: We are just now beginning to understand how the brain works, and there are scientific results that are extraordinary. But before something can become a brain rule, I require that it not only be first published in a peer-reviewed journal, but that it also be replicated in a noncompeting laboratory. I’m hopeful that there will be 21 brain rules in two years as our understanding grows.

What are the new things?

I have rearranged the list slightly since we discussed it four years ago, and there are two brand-new ones based on new scientific work.

One of them is that we are multisensory processors. The more multisensory you can make a learning environment, the more enriched the environment becomes for learning. All of the sensory system in the brain developed together. So, it makes sense that the brain would be very responsive and receptive to inputs that are being multiply received all at once, as a richer experience. The psychological finding is not new, but until recently, the supporting neurological machinery was not clear. With some truly wonderful work coming out of Europe, all that’s beginning to change — and now its a “brain rule” as opposed to just a “mind rule.” This has huge implications for learning in either educational or business settings.

And the other one?

This one is a minefield, but it doesn’t change the data. The president of Harvard lost his job over a lack of care in stating the truth of this one. It is that men and woman process stress-related emotional inputs differently.

It illustrates how careful you must be in doing the experiments, because experimental design itself can be influenced by your own prejudices, let alone the outcomes. So with this brain rule, we required not only that it had to be replicated in a noncompeting laboratory, but also that the laboratory investigator had to be opposite gender of the person who came up with the rule in the first place. That did not happen till two-and-half to three years ago, so I only recently added it to the list.

Here are the conclusions from the experiments. One side of the brain is responsible both for the creation of emotions and the memory of emotions; the other side of the brain processes detail. In women, if you show an emotional experience, the detail side of the brain lights up. If you give them a memory test of the events, they get details right but don’t get the gist very well. If you show the same stressful experience to men, they will process the stressful experience on the other side of the brain, and they score very high on the gist and do not do very well on the details.

So if these brain rules tell us how our brain works, can we take a leap into the business world and conclude the best way to apply these rules?

No! [Laughs] What we could do is hypothesize some ideas from these rules, and then set up experiments in education or business to test the ideas. But very little work of this kind has been done.

One area of work that has been started relates to the brain rule that exercise boosts brain power. A real good experiment was started recently at the University of Washington with a group of business executives who needed to learn Mandarin because their company was moving into the Chinese market. They asked this question: “What if a group of executives exercised, and instead of letting them take a shower, we brought them into the Mandarin class?” We hypothesized that they would do better than a second group who went to their class without exercise. The rate of acquisition by the group that exercised was 22 percent higher than the control group without exercise.

Now this is just one experiment, and needs to be replicated, but it shows a small way in which the brain rules might be connected to a business setting through scientific experiments. Wouldn’t it be great if we could, from the brain rules, launch all sorts of rigorous scientific experiments with the goal of creating better, more productive work and learning environments?