Medina: Brain Rules Affect Workplace

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Oct 25, 2012

CHICAGO—Even though molecular biologist Dr. John J. Medina said, “We actually don’t know very much about how the brain works,” his keynote address during the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition took attendees on a whirlwind tour of two areas of brain research that he explored in his book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Pear Press, 2009). It turns out that we really aren’t getting as much work done as we think we are, and that men and women’s brains really do work differently.


Medina began his presentation by explaining principle No. 4: “We don’t pay attention to boring things.”

First, he summarized what researchers know about “arousal states,” meaning attention spans. The human brain uses a sort of spotlight that acts as a general scanning device. If the scanner picks up on something interesting, it communicates with another area of the brain, which he referred to as “the mother.”

The mother is a “task switching permissions editor,” he said, which will allow someone to switch tasks, stop what they are doing and do something else, or stick with what they are doing. “Before you can switch, you have to ask mother,” he said.

Researchers know that the “mother” area of the brain will accept requests to switch just one query at a time. “She cannot parallel process. And because she can’t parallel process, she can’t multitask,” he said. “And because she can’t multitask, you can’t either.”

He noted that the cognitive neurosciences definition of multitasking is “two or more simultaneously functioning independent operating processes capable of providing unique and detachable output.”

“If you try to push the system and multitask, all you will feel is stress. That is not an opinion; it is a fact.” This type of stress will affect the individual during the day and at night, he added.

This does not mean that the brain can only do one thing at a time, he noted. For example, the brain can regulate the heartbeat while allowing someone to listen to a lecture, he explained.

Nevertheless, the end result of attempting to multitask is clear. In his words, “If you do well at task A, you suck at task B.”

By way of example, Medina shared the findings of an experiment in which teenagers were asked to complete math problems. One group did so while texting friends and listening to music while the other group did so uninterrupted. From a productivity standpoint, the research results revealed that it took those who multitasked twice as long to complete the work. In other words, they got only half as much done. Moreover, the multitasking students made 50 percent more errors.

“Where this really shows up is when you are trying to talk on the phone and drive at the same time,” he noted. Researchers have discovered that the reaction times for those talking on a cell phone while driving are equivalent to the reaction times for someone driving with an elevated blood alcohol level.

Theory of Mind

In rule No. 11 of his book, Medina notes that “male and female brains are different.” More specifically, women are twice as good as men at “theory of mind” tasks, he said. Theory of mind is “the ability to peer inside someone else’s head and understand the rewards and punishments inside their psychological interior with very little cues,” he explained. “Those who don’t have theory of mind are called ‘autistic,’ ” he said.

Moreover, “once you can peer inside someone’s head you can understand that reactions will vary based on the person,” he explained.

Medina demonstrated this concept by sharing with the audience a six-word novel that Ernest Hemingway wrote in the form of a classified ad. It read: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”

Many in the audience responded with audible gasps or other signs that they understood the tragedy that could be behind those six little words.

Socially, theory of mind is extraordinarily powerful, he noted. “We call it empathy,” he said.

“Women are twice as good at this as men,” he noted, but that doesn’t mean women are more emotional than men, as they are “often accused,” he said. “They are not.” They can merely “see more of the emotional landscape than men,” he explained. “Women have a better emotional resolution in most of the landscapes in which they work.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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