In ‘Brain Rules,’ John Medina hopes to open up your eyes and mind
If terms like “interactive synchrony,” “mirror-neuron activity” and “inductive discipline” make your eyes glaze over, join the club. As the learning-on-the-job father of a scrappy eight-month old, I entered the world of developmental molecular biologist John Medina with skepticism. After all, the author of “Brain Rules” and “Brain Rules for Baby” isn’t doing any actual scientific research on the brain or on child rearing, he’s merely formatting the science that’s already out there into an interface the rest of us can hopefully use.
The author Medina doesn’t shy away from the occasional mouthful; “In the brain, the fights appear to be between deferred-imitation instincts and moral-internalization proclivities” is one sentence that springs to mind, in the section he devotes to “aversive stimulus,” i.e. punishment. But if you bear with him, Medina’s conclusions are practically bulletproof. Although 94 percent of Americans have spanked their child at least once by their kid’s fourth birthday, Medina is against the practice. The 3-year-olds who were spanked more than twice in the month prior to a recent Tulane University study were 50 percent more likely to be more aggressive by age 5. Hence imitation is a stronger force than “moral internalization.” It all makes sense, when you stop to think about it.
Medina is particularly adept at deconstructing stereotypes, including the age-old division between smart nerds and dumb jocks. For kids (as well as adults) “Physical activity is cognitive candy,” spurring the brain to literally regenerate through a process neurologists call the “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.” Sports don’t just build muscle, they build brain tissue, which is less surprising than it sounds, considering that our big brains evolved in a hazardous and physically challenging environment in which we had to walk (or run) up to a dozen miles per day while hunting, foraging, and outsmarting bigger, stronger species that wanted to make us into power snacks. “We grew up in top physical shape, or we didn’t grow up at all,” says Medina in his book.
So, then, what about having treadmills in classrooms and the office? That is an idea Medina actually suggests—by the same token lamenting the severe lack of basic research devoted to novel educational techniques and work environments. “And this from an overweight scientist,” Medina (who is nothing if not witty) hastened to add during an interview.
Another clarification concerned the example he gave of the tragic case of Romanian orphans under the totalitarian rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, who created a horrific state-run child warehousing system one observer dubbed “pediatric Auschwitz.” Severely traumatized, a number of these children were finally adopted into Western families. A Canadian study then showed that the babies who were adopted prior to four months fared well, adapting to their new environment and growing up like normal kids. The babies adopted after eight months had no such luck apparently, and (according to the study) ended up sociopathic, or, as Medina described them, “like gang members.” A French neuropsychiatrist by the name of Boris Cyrulnik, whose entire family was actually killed at Auschwitz was the first (though Anna Freud discovered the concept) to coin the term “resiliency” in psychiatry, and he spent a lot of time studying and rehabilitating Romanian orphans. Contradicting the Canadian study, Cyrulnik found that, with careful socialization and a lot of compassion, many of these orphans were not actually lost to society—even if they were rescued much later in life than those in the Canadian study. I asked Medina whether it was possible to reconcile those findings.
“The literature has only gotten more confusing since I addressed the topic in BR4B,” Medina said, “which is not all that unusual, as seismic shifts occur in this field with the frequency of Chilean earthquakes. Here’s my take on the subject as of 8:07 PST, 2/15/11 (time of our interview): It is becoming increasingly clear that there are: a) stress-resistant and stress-sensitive people, b) that they are mostly born that way, c) that there are genes which predict how they will behave under conditions of severe trauma.”
Medina provided me with a list of scientific articles supporting his perspective—an approach which sets him apart from other authors who specialize in packaging hard science for public consumption. Those Romanian orphans who did OK possibly possessed a variant of a gene called MAOA, which Medina colorfully describes as something that “coats the brain in Teflon.” As he notes, more research is needed to settle the question.
For ordinary parents—those whose kids hopefully won’t experience any serious trauma—and folks who just want to understand their own brains and unlock their own potential, Medina’s work is an exceptional resource. He is nothing less than an expert navigator charting the confusing archipelago of brain science.
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