This post is a summary of the information in the 4th chapter of Brain Rules and the accompanying website, BrainRules.net, by John Medina Probably the most important Brain Rule for education has to do with attention. It is what students struggle the most to give and what teachers struggle the most to get.
The brain receives inputs from all of the body's senses and it decides how to allocate its attention. The brain cannot pay attention to two things at once. That's right: multi-tasking (when it comes to attention) is not possible! The brain can change it's attention very rapidly, however, but this comes at great expense. Whenever the brain shifts its attention, it must first disengage from the current task before it engages in another. Although these shifts in attention occur very rapidly, they can add up quickly. Imagine a student who is listening to music, checking Facebook, instant messaging, and talking on the phone all at once! The brain is constantly shifting its attention between these tasks.
Research shows that so-called 'multi-taskers' take up to 50% longer to complete a task and commit 50% more errors when compared to those who focus solely on the task at hand.
Meaning Before Details
The brain evolved to understand the bigger picture before it comprehends the details. Comprehension and recall both improve when key ideas are presented before specific facts. This is because the brain records information hierarchically in categories. Without the big picture, the brain doesn't know where the little details fit and loses interest.
The brain also looks for information that is useful or relevant to survival. When primitive man came in contact with an animal or plant, the brain would ask itself three questions:
Can I mate with it and will it mate with me?
Can I eat it or will it eat me?
Have I seen it before?
Based on those questions, it would decide whether it was worth paying attention to. Similarly, the modern human brain seeks to understand whether information is worth remembering. The brain may pose questions such as:
Can I use this knowledge to impress a girl?
Will this knowledge help me get a job?
Have I learned this information before?
By effectively asking, "What's in it for me?" the brain determines whether the material being presented is worth the effort to pay attention to, process, and retain.
Stories are a wonderful way of transmitting information. Many cultures have used storytelling as their primary method of passing on their histories. Stories are effective for two reasons. First, as explained above, even if the details of a story change, its meaning can remain intact. More importantly, though, stories are effective because they evoke a very primitive and powerful force: emotion.
As almost anyone will confirm, emotional events are remembered better than emotionally neutral events. Action packed sports games, tear-jerking movies, and funny commercials can be recalled quickly and easily.
Multiple studies, as well as common classroom experiences, show that most brains cannot pay attention to the same thing for very long. The attention span generally lasts between 10-20 minutes, but rarely, if ever, spans the full 50 minutes of a regular college lecture.
It is interesting to note that the brain doesn't require much to restart the clock, so to speak. A brief diversion of a few minutes is enough.