16 Jul 2019

Brain rules for living and ageing well - John Medina

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 16 July 2019

When it comes to our brains, we seem to have forgotten all about our evolutionary history, developmental molecular biologist John Medina says.

Medina, an affiliate professor of bio-engineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, has written extensively on the brain and aging, what we do know, he says, is that our brain was “born” on the Serengeti.

69425127 - opening mind - conceptual vector illustration of cage in head with brain inside and hand opening it with key

Photo: 123RF

“We know something about its evolutionary performance envelope. It's the envelope that I'm talking about here. These are the conditions under which the brain appears to process information the best, the 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, probably walking, I don't know, 12 miles a day or so.

“So even though we are just in the beginning stages of understanding how the brain works, and how we can apply that to real world settings, the little that we do know suggests that if you wanted to design a living environment, a working environment, or an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you design a room with chairs in it and make everybody sit there for eight hours a day.”

The idea we can multi-task is entirely untrue, he says, this is well-illustrated by our inability to text and drive.

“If you've been drinking, you can add a meter to your reaction times, but if you're texting, you can add 23 meters to your reaction times, which almost always means you're going to get into a collision when faced with an accident.”

The reason for that is the brain uses something called “attentional spotlight”, a cognitive gadget to focus on a particular thing at one time, he says. 

“If you define multi-tasking as the ability to do two things at once, if you could, you could literally open up a book and with the left eye and read the left page, while simultaneously with the right eye reading the right page, and read it all together and at the very end have a cogent idea of what those two pages said. “

So If you're busy texting while driving and have to react, you have to switch from one cognitive task to another, he says.

“In the United States most of the collisions that occur now occur because of distracted driving.”

That means the open plan office is the enemy of concentration, he says.

“In open office environments, which I consider to be the most, I'm going to use the word stupid, the stupidest form of design you can for an office environment, you often can hear bits and snatches of other people's conversations.”

He calls these “halfasations”.

“That halfasation is so distracting, because what happens is that you end up not doing your job, but trying to fill in the bits and pieces of the other person's conversation.

“You're in an environment that forces your brain to do something it is biologically incapable of doing and that is at the attentional spotlight, multitasking.”

Add intrusive technology into the mix and the brain has far more information than it can possibly process, he says.   

“When you wake up in the morning, a whole flood of information comes wafting at you, you get a tsunami of information, there is clear evidence that shows that your brain can imbibe, can absorb, much more information than it can process in fact, visual processing, you can only process about .001 percent of the information is coming into the eyes.

“That's the little amount that your brain can consciously process. So you wake up with a system that's already overwhelmed, it's already too much information out there. If you were just doing what it does, naturally, if you then add things to it, your brain was never built to look at a handset for 10 seconds and go back off and then go back on it and go back and forth.”

The brain was built to determine whether a sabre-toothed tiger was nearby he says, and it hasn’t much altered since.

“Because the world of the Serengeti, which is our cognitive uterus, it's where our brain gave birth to itself, if you will. You didn't have anything like the powers of distraction that are available now, so the brain isn't used to it, and it will not be used to it for hundreds of thousands of years.

“We diverged from the chimps about eight to ten million years ago, we think, it took hundreds of thousands of years to get the brain to the point where it is capable of inventing a cell phone, it is not yet capable of using it.”

John Medina

John Medina Photo: Supplied

The aging brain

There is quite a lot we can do to keep our brains in good shape as we age, he says.

Eat a Mediterranean diet and not too much food, and exercise moderately, he says.

“Exercising for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity in a seven day period is both necessary and sufficient to begin warding off the ghosts of Alzheimer’s,” he says.

Friendships are also important, maintaining them and starting them anew, Medina says. Even better if you occasionally disagree with those friends as this can maintain “episodic memory”. This is borne out by research Denise Park did called the Synapse project, he says.

“If you regularly get into arguments with people who don't agree with you, but you can maintain the friendships, she was able to show you can get a dramatic increase in episodic memory. The key is the tension between the fact that there's a disagreement, and you have a friend, that seems to be a big deal.”

Reading is also very good for you, Medina says.

“If you read three and a half hours per week, you have 17 percent less chance of dying by a certain age; and if you read more than three and a half hours per week you have 23 percent less chance of dying of what we call all-cause mortality - which is the sum total of your mortality.

“So there's a ton of things that you can do as the brain begins to fail, to stop it from failing and even to improve it.”

Not least dancing, it combines many of the things that maintain us physically and psychologically as we age, Medina says.

“When you're dancing, you have to have a forced social interaction. So that's what's going to happen, you're going to be forced to interact. Number two: you're going to coordinate your movements with somebody else, which means you constantly have to be looking at what they're doing and what they're not doing. And number three, and the most interesting thing of all, is that you are doing non- exploitative touching, when you're dancing.”

That absence of touch is the thing older people miss most as they age, he says.

He recommends making friends in your middle age and with people of all ages, this reduces the scarring that comes as friends die later in life, Medina says.

If we stay healthy aging can be an enjoyable experience, he says.

“Believe it or not, when you get to old age, if your health is maintained, you actually get less depressed and less anxious. There's a growing body of work that says as long as your health is maintained, and your social interactions are intact, aging can actually be a really pleasant experience.”

John Medina is an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. His books include Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Attack of the Teenage Brain,  Brain Rules for Aging Well, Depression, and What You Need to Know About Alzheimer's.