Meetings & Your Brain

Deep Thoughts With John Medina

The author on why the classroom is a terrible learning environment, how open-space design only gets it half-right, and what presenters need to do every nine minutes and 59 seconds.


We join our interview with John Medina, Ph.D., already in progress. The molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School was talking to Convene about his Opening General Session presentation at the PCMA Education Conference in Fort Lauderdale next month, but he treated our Q&A as more of a conversation. Right off the bat he had questions for me, about my background, my career, and the challenges facing magazine journalism.

An affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, Medina is interested in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. With the best-selling Brain Rules, first published in 2008, he offered a dozen guiding principles for understanding how the brain works (#1. Exercise boosts brainpower; #5. Repeat to remember; #10. Vision trumps all other senses; etc.), and at the Education Conference he’ll discuss their obvious relevance to meeting professionals, from brain-friendly conference design to high-retention content.

On the phone Medina spent as much time listening as talking. Pursuant to Brain Rule #4 (We don’t pay attention to boring things), he was lively and enthusiastic, quick to laugh, and eager to pursue follow-up questions. And so when he asked about the challenges facing journalism, that led us to the challenges facing meetings — which led to what live meetings do particularly well, and suddenly our interview was underway.

John Medina: The amount of information that a brain extracts from a face-to-face meeting is so much different than if you have to do it over what I call Skype-to-Skype meetings. It’s an impoverished data set that you look at when you look at somebody through a screen. When you see them face-to-face, your brain picks up minute changes in air pressure. It changes the convection in the room, the amount of background noise in the room, the smells that you’re making. It’s an entirely different experience to see somebody face-to-face than it is to see somebody screen-to-screen.

Obviously you spend a lot of time speaking at conferences. Is that experience like a living laboratory for you, where you get to test out your theories of audience engagement and retention?

Correct. I’ve been used to speaking a lot in terms of the research world, at research seminars and whatnot, and those are, from a lay-audience perspective, some of the most boring things you could ever experience. [Laughs.] And we’re not supposed to be compelling. We’re supposed to let the data lead us. So that’s fine, and I totally get that. Even I, who am a believer in theatrics for lay audiences, am not a believer in theatrics for scientific audiences.

But I’ve gotten out on the road much more than I ever had before. I speak both to education-related audiences and then, more in the PCMA world, to business audiences, and I find that they have very different problems to solve even though they have the exact same brain. What I usually say to educators is this: Even though we don’t know very much about how the brain works, we’re not clueless. We know, for example, the evolutionary performance envelope of the human brain. We know the conditions under which it learns information the best, whether you’re sitting in a classroom or a boardroom or you’re just looking out the window. Here are the conditions:

The human 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.

No kidding. [Laughs.] So if you wanted to design a learning environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you’d design a classroom. And if you wanted to design a business environment for the conference that was directly opposed to what the brain is naturally good at doing, you’d hire somebody to do a keynote speech.

Has that knowledge changed how you deliver a keynote?

Oh, it most certainly has. We know, for example, that it takes you about 10 minutes to lose an audience if you’re just giving a normal talk. So at the nine-minute-and-59-second mark, you have to do something fairly radical. In fact, you should do it within 30 seconds of your first words, but certainly at nine minutes and 59 seconds. And here is where we can get into some brain science.

I think anybody who does speeches at all ought to really understand that the brain processes meaning before it processes detail. It wants the meaning of what it is that you’re talking about before it wants the detail of what it is you’re talking about. So then the question you can ask is, from a science point of view, what does meaning mean and what do you have to do at nine minutes and 59 seconds? It’s pretty simple. When a piece of information comes into the brain, your brain immediately interrogates it with six questions right off the bat. And you can see the Darwinian roots of the brain’s processing features really clearly here.

The first question it will ask is, will it eat me? You’re going to make an assessment of threat; that’s a survival mechanism. The second question is, can I eat it? Question number three is, can I have sex with it? And it’s actually not even sex per se. It’s, is there reproductive opportunity?

Question number four is, can it have sex with me? Questions number five and six to me are professionally the most interesting, because there’s no a priori for them. It just shows you something about how the brain learns: Have I seen it before? Or, have I never seen it before? The reason why is, the brain is an unbelievably gifted pattern matcher, and it’s looking for patterns that it’s seen.

So at nine minutes and 59 seconds, you’ve got to address one of those six questions or you’ll lose your audience. I call them hooks. I’ll give you an example. I teach second-year medical students and bioengineering graduate students. When I’m going to be talking about, say, hemispheric connections between the two [halves of the brain] — there’s an area of the brain called the corpus callosum that actually communicates between the two hemispheres — I do not start out by saying, “The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres, and here is the afferent and efferent neurocabling that connects these two hemispheres together.”

Nope. I’ll start it out with a story. Like, there was a woman who had a really strange behavior. If you were the psychiatrist, this woman comes into the room and she sits down and she starts talking to you, and immediately her left hand grabs her throat and she tries to strangle herself. No kidding. By the way, do I have your attention?

You do have my attention.

Threatening story. I just said a woman tries to strangle herself. There’s no pattern matching you can do with that, so your pattern matching is, what is that? Okay. This is a true story. As soon as her left hand comes up and tries to strangle herself, her right hand seems to realize that is a threat, and with her right hand she struggles to pull her left hand off of her throat, and if she succeeds she usually takes her left hand and sits on it.

And so the question you can ask is, WTF? What is going on with that? And immediately I have my audience. I can explain: She had a tumor growing on the cabling that connects her left and right hemispheres, and she was suicidal. And with her left hand she was trying to kill herself. That was her suicidal ideation. But because now there’s a tumor that is interfering with the communication between the two hemispheres, the right hand didn’t get the memo that it’s time to die. So the right hand is going, That’s a threat, I’m going to try to pull my offending left hand off!

That is a terrific example. Now, for the next nine minutes and 59 seconds, I can talk about the boring cabling that connects the two hemispheres of the brain and they will never forget it. And that’s the point.

We call these ECSs — I call them hooks: emotionally competent stimuli. Every nine minutes and 59 seconds, you have to give an ECS.

The rules for hooks are really simple and straightforward. Number one, it has to be short. Keep it about two minutes. Number two, it needs to be a narrative if you can at all make it into a narrative. And number three, it has to satisfy one of the six questions.

Some of your current research is into areas such as open-area environments, which are kind of hot in the meetings arena right now. Are they effective learning environments?

I’ll talk a little bit about something called prospect-refuge theory and then talk about open offices for starters, if that makes sense. In our evolutionary history, we grew up in the Ngorongoro Crater in the Serengeti, right? So we’re in central east Africa. We came out of the Sahara, which used to be a rainforest. And if you do ground-penetrating radar, you can actually see the jungles and riverways and whatnot that are now buried under all of this sand. So we grew up with a lot of water, and a lot of the farthest things away from us were four centimeters or so. When we come down into the Serengeti, we almost didn’t make it because now you introduce the concept of flat, which had never been in our concept before. We had to introduce the idea that, oh, my God, I’m going to need to find a water source, because in a rainforest water is everywhere, right? So we had a lot of problems we had to solve to make it.

One of the reasons we think we solved our problems and actually survived in the flatlands or even in the Ngorongoro Crater, which is a series of rock faces that open up into a flatland, is because of something called prospect-refuge theory. We loved to be able to sit on a cliff and look out at the prospect, so we could look out over the entire flatland of the Serengeti. We could identify if there was a water source. We could identify if there was a predator like a lion pride roaming around, right? We could identify food, so if there were gazelles we were going to get those. We love, love, love, love the ability to see vast distances. We love prospect.

But, if that’s all we were about was open-space joy, we would die, because eventually a predator would get at us. Prospect is great, but it isn’t everything. We need to be able to as quickly as possible find the second component of this, which is refuge. We needed to be able to quickly get into a cave for our safety if we needed to. So it turns out that the brain really loves a balance between these two ideas. We love prospect, but we don’t love too much of it. And we love refuge, but we can’t stay there very long or we’ll die of thirst or hunger.

Architecturally where this turns out to be really important is, those architects or meeting designers or anybody that only designs for open space is going to get half the equation right. They’re going to get the prospect side, because we do love open space for a while. But we don’t love it all the time. In fact, we want to be able to tuck into our cubbyhole as quickly as possible, where we can get some solitary time so that we can catch our breath and move away from this incredible open space that we normally love. In fact, some of the most creative times that the brain has is when it’s within line of sight of either event. If you’re out in the plain, if you’re within line of sight of the cave and you can see it and then if you need to move toward it — creativity just thrives. And the same if you need to move out of refuge and into prospect, you can argue that there’s a tremendous number of cognitive processes that come online.

What will you be talking about at the PCMA Education Conference?

I’ve been asked to speak on three things, so I am going to divide my talk into three parts. I think it is a 60-minute talk, so it’s actually going to be six 10-minute lectures. I’ll have two 10-minutes for each topic. First, what kinds of content make the most memorable experiences? The second one is, when putting events together, what elements make the most creative, highest-functioning teams? And the third thing I’ve been asked to speak about is open-space-environment stuff, which we were just talking about. So those three things all together should probably give you, oh my goodness, more material than you can possibly stand.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.