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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review: Brain Rules

I bought Brain Rules (kindle edition) after watching John Medina give a talk at Google:

Not only is he a great speaker, he also does a better job of explaining the way the brain works than Welcome to Your Brain, and he even does a better job of explaining sleep than Take a Nap!, a book dedicated to the entire topic of sleep. For instance, he's not afraid to tell you about the difference between the morning people and the night owls:
About 1 in 10 of us is like Dilbert’s Adams. The scientific literature calls such people larks (more palatable than the proper term, “early chronotype”). In general, larks report being most alert around noon and feel most productive at work a few hours before they eat lunch. They don’t need an alarm clock, because they invariably get up before the alarm rings—often before 6 a.m. Larks cheerfully report their favorite mealtime as breakfast and generally consume much less coffee than non-larks. Getting increasingly drowsy in the early evening, most larks go to bed (or want to go to bed) around 9 p.m. Larks are the mortal enemy of the 2 in 10 humans who lie at the other extreme of the sleep spectrum: “late chronotypes,” or owls. In general, owls report being most alert around 6 p.m., experiencing their most productive work times in the late evening. They rarely want to go to bed before 3 a.m. Owls invariably need an alarm clock to get them up in the morning, with extreme owls requiring multiple alarms to ensure arousal. Indeed, if owls had their druthers, most would not wake up much before 10 a.m. Not surprisingly, late chronotypes report their favorite mealtime as dinner, and they would drink gallons of coffee all day long to prop themselves up at work if given the opportunity. If it sounds to you as though owls do not sleep as well as larks in our society, you are right on the money. Indeed, late chronotypes usually accumulate a massive “sleep debt” as they go through life.(Kindle Loc 1801)

Many other books on neuroscience and brain rules look at such data without actually giving you actionable advise. Not so with Brain Rules! For instance, he prescribes what to do for better development of children (it has nothing to do with teachers as far as early development is concerned, but has everything to do with educating parents!). Medina also eschews giving you the simple rules without context --- nearly everything is explained --- either through an exposition and reasoning through evolutionary biology, or with references to extensive research and experiments. In fact, he makes it a rule that he will not consider including the results of an experiment unless it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and the results have been replicated!

As a result of his understanding of neuroscience, this book is entertaining, never dry, and has immediate, practical use for what you learn. If you have only the time to read one popular book on neuroscience, make it this book. Highly recommended!


Amy said...

Yes, this was an excellent, excellent book. I got it after John saw him talk at Google. We also caught him live more recently speaking at dorkbot in Seattle.

Rarely have I read anything that did so much to allay my fears that something was wrong with me as that section on late and early chronotypes. Just like the book said about late chronotypes, I'd gone through my whole life tired and getting accusing glances and jibes about needing a lot of sleep or being irresponsible or tardy because I wasn't a morning person. My last manager would give me hard time for staying til 2am and then coming in at 11 or noon the next day, even though I insisted this was the best way for me to be productive, and she said previously that here, your schedule was up to you as long as you get your work done... I was; it was just mostly from 9pm - 1am. The coffee solution doesn't work for me either, since caffeine makes me sick.

I wish everyone were aware of this book, and at least the info in that chapter, if nothing else.

For a while recently I was trying to just do what felt like my natural schedule, and it was indeed to stay up until 3 or 4 and sleep until almost noon. It was nice, but didn't coordinate well with the rest of the world... in a practical sense, there is a necessity to be around when other people are for many activities, or at least when the sun is up to do things outdoors, so I'm starting to make myself get up earlier and go to bed earlier again. Not super early, but something like 8:00am is a reasonable compromise.

Piaw Na said...

I will admit that being a natural Lark really does give me an advantage when interacting with the world. Especially for things like cycling, hiking, and other things where getting up early gives you more hours to do stuff in sunlight, it is a wonder at all to me that our evolution seems to have produced so many Owls (I will admit to being especially cruel to Owls who show up on my bike trips). I guess there's a need for sentries at night too, but why should there be more sentries needed at night than in the early morning?