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Human brain not built for modern society

John Medina

Though current American society often demands a monotonous daily routine for both adults and adolescents, a Seattle-based scientist and author argues workplaces and schools operate in a way counter to how the human brain functions best.

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In his book, “Brain Rules,” he asserts that everybody’s brain is different, but none are perfectly suited for the life that modern American society presents.

Medina said there is still many unknowns about the human brain and how it works, so he is weary of applying cut-and-dry explanations to its functions.

“We don’t know how you know how to pick up a glass of water and drink it,” Medina said. “We don’t know how you know to pick up a pen and write your name with it.”

Medina’s research suggests that every brain is as unique as the person to whom it belongs, which means that everyone has a different learning style.

“Some people will say [there are] seven learning styles,” Medina said. “I would say 7.3 billion learning styles because every brain is wired differently.”

The brain is also highly adaptive, Medina said, and designed to constantly rewire itself to respond to external inputs. Because everyone’s experience is unique, this rewiring is individualized to each person’s external stimuli.

Despite the complex nature of the brain, Medina said there are some things scientists know have predictive value, like the performance envelope -- the conditions under which the brain processes information the best. According to Medina, the human brain appears to have been designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting in unstable meteorological conditions and to do so in near constant motion.

“It’s so good at it [that] if you put it back into which it evolved, it actually functions a lot better,” Medina said. “So, even though we don’t know squat about how the brain actually works…the little we do know suggests that if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you’d design a classroom.”

Medina said there is no current organization that he has seen which fully recreates the sort of learning environment best suited for how the brain typically works. For example, Medina said NASA experiments prove the brain works best if a person takes an afternoon nap about 12 hours past the midpoint of the previous night’s sleep. However, few workplaces or schools currently allow a reprieve for such an afternoon nap.

"We don't know how you know how to pick up a glass of water and drink it. We don't know how you know to pick up a pen and write your name with it."

The human brain works best when it exists in a multi-sensory environment, so Medina said the classroom should incorporate a learning style that stimulates all the senses at once.

In addition, he said there needs to be more done to distinguish early-chronotypes from late-chronotypes, better known as early birds and night owls. Because we live in what Medina said is an early-chronotype world, night owls, who peak in the evening rather than the morning, tend to drag around “sleep debt” in school and in the workplace. As a solution, Medina proposed implementing a system similar to college at the high-school level, where students can choose what time to take classes depending on the time of their brain’s peak efficiency.

“There are a few common cognitive processes that occur that can be applicable across the board, regardless of the classroom, the age or the culture that you live in, [and] there is a reasonable shot at doing experiments that could optimize that,” Medina said.

There is some hope, Medina said, as great progress has been made in the behavioral sciences and the molecular side of the brain. With more progress comes more questions, though, so Medina said it is important to remember how complex and unique the brain is.

“People need to be aware -- both of what we don’t know and what we do know,” Medina said. “We have so far to go, and the progress that we’re making is actually uncovering how much further we have to go to understand it.”