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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Campus

Separating Fact From Fiction About the Brain

Provocative book spins heads

John Medina, director of SPU's Brain Center for Applied Learning Research
“Brain disorders are my thing,” says John Medina, who lives in a state of fastination with the brain's inner workings.

While sitting in an airport, leafing through a magazine, John Medina, director of Seattle Pacific University’s Brain Center for Applied Learning Research, reached a breaking point. “All of the sudden,” says the developmental molecular biologist, “I saw these claims: ‘Brain science is going to change the way we do business.’ ‘Brain science is going to change the way we teach our children.’ ‘Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus.’ ‘There is a left brain and a right brain.’ ‘You only use 10 percent of your brain.’

“Most of what people think they know about the brain is pure myth.”

Medina, who also serves on the faculty of the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, decided to respond. “I asked, ‘What do we actually know about the brain, and what should we do with what we know?’”

Those questions led to Medina’s new book. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Pear Press, 2008) sparks with the author’s explosive humor and jaw-dropping anecdotes, teaching people how to boost their brain power in every area of life. Each chapter presents a “brain rule” — something scientists consider a certainty about how the brain works — and then spells out how that rule might transform lives for the better.

Medina’s perspective, as well as his personality, have stirred up excitement across the country. Since its publication last spring, Brain Rules has consistently been one of the top 10 science books on It has been featured in The Harvard Business Review, and Medina has made appearances on ABC News and National Public Radio.

One of the book’s key observations is the importance of exercise in habilitating proper brain function. Medina practices what he preaches. He’s installed a treadmill in his office at SPU, and answers his email while he walks.

Given the proper funding — about $2 billion dollars — the author says he could revolutionize education. How? By investing the money in a multisensory “holodeck.” “It would truly be the most effective learning environment that exists. … The brain was designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting and to do so in constant motion. Period. Disneyland works because of that. I wouldn’t build a Matterhorn; I’d put up the quadratic equation instead.”

Medina is also convinced that our current tendency toward working and thinking in offices — and worse, in cubicles — is detrimental to healthy thinking and productivity. “I call it ‘habituating to the cage,’” he says. “It’s like taking a beautiful 747 and all you’re ever going to let it do is taxi. That’s not what the brain was built for.”

Whether at school, work, or home, readers are seeing the possibilities in Medina’s Brain Rules, even if they do blow a few minds. “If you want an owner’s manual for the brain, then this is probably the one that should be handed out with every newborn,” says Kes Sampanthar, inventor of the “ThinkCube.”

—Photo by John Keatley

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Department Highlights

Science Lessons
SPU receives a five-year $3.7 million grant from the NSF.

Environmental Art Creates Community
Sculptures by students brought together a neighborhood.

Record Enrollment Led by Graduate Students
Autumn Quarter 2008 saw the largest, most diverse student body ever come to campus.

Can Reconciliation Be Taught?
Grants are allowing student teachers to increase intercultural competency.

Taking Time Out to Contemplate Beauty
The Day of Common Learning explored the importance of beauty.

SPU Staff Member Joins Ceremony at C.S. Lewis Home
The Kilns received status as a historic site after major renovation.

Tom Box Becomes Advancement VP
Longtime SPU athletic director returns to role in fundraising and development.

New Academic Programs Take a Global View
Two majors emerge out of SPU’s signature commitment to practice radical reconciliation.

A Tool to Help Prevent Falls
Nursing students received notice for creating DVD aimed at aiding senior adults.

Separating Fact From Fiction About the Brain
Dr. John Medina’s new book gives readers “brain rules” for home, work, and school.