Brain Rules – Part 2


“If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”

Last week, I posted a great slideshare presentation by Garr Reynolds about some of the highlights from the book, Brain Rules by John Medina. This week, a little bit more on this must-have book for educators.

John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist and director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. Based on his work, he has developed 12 “Brain Rules:”

  1. Exercise – boosts brain power
  2. Survival – the human brain evolved too
  3. Wiring – every brain is wired differently
  4. Attention – we don’t pay attention to boring things
  5. Short-term Memory – repeat to remember
  6. Long-term Memory – remember to repeat
  7. Sleep – sleep well, think well
  8. Stress – stressed brains don’t learn the same way
  9. Sensory Integration – stimulate more of the senses
  10. Vision – trumps all other senses
  11. Gender – male and female brains are different
  12. Exploration – we are powerful and natural explorers

These are all immediately applicable, but a few stand out among the crowd.



“The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – and retained.” 

This again emphasizes the importance of creating a connection with our audience and fighting for their attention. As it stands now, if keeping someone’s interest in a lecture were a business, John thinks there would be an 80% failure rate (and that is being generous in my opinion). His ideas for increasing attention including using an emotional anchor, breaking up lectures into 10-minute segments, and using hooks that are relevant and bridge the segments. 

Short-term Memory

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 4.48.48 PM          (Click the image to view a short video excerpt)

“The more elaborately we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory.”

“Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts.”

Although we don’t understand everything about memory, we do know some key factors that help us enhance memory and educate others. One of John’s ideas to enhance memory are to use real-world examples to encode the information better when being learned. This emphasizes the point that less is more. Fewer points, but more depth and meaning in those points. This overlaps both the ideas of streamline the message and organize and anchor that I use in my design process.

Long-term Memory

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“…thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event, even when accounting for differences in type of memory.”

“Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid it can be.”

Quite simply, repetition is the key to promote knowledge transfer into long-term memory.

Sensory Integration

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“Learning is less effective in a unisensory environment.”

Medical education is ripe with opportunities to add multisensory stimulation and promote knowledge transfer. For a recent lecture on valvular disorders, I walked around with my portable speaker and played the murmurs for everyone as they answered questions in groups. Working on getting an entire case presentation to have no words, just visual and audio input, closer to the real thing.



“The more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized – and recalled.”

The brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures. It’s almost an overload of input, of sorts. On the other hand, there is a pictorial superiority effect (PSE) that let’s us remember details of pictures much more effectively, with little exposure, for a very long time. John’s idea to integrate this rule is to 1. Toss your old powerpoints, 2. Make new ones! Another way to promote knowledge transfer. 

Brain Rules is another must-read that has helped to shape my approach to presentation design, and even curriculum design as well.


Medina J. Brain Rules. 2008. Pear Press.

Book Review – Clear and to The Point

This is another book that helped to form my early interest in presentation design.


Stephen Kosslyn is a professor of psychology who has written many papers and books on cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. This book follows from one of his earlier works, Elements of Graphic Design. This is a very well-written and practical book that gives some great examples of “Do’s” and “Dont’s” to improve slides in presentation.

Kosslyn offers 3 goals that “virtually define an effective presentation:”

  1. Connect with your audience
  2. Direct and hold attention
  3. Promote understanding and learning

He then proposes 8 principles to achieve those goals:

  1. Principle of Relevance – Communication is most effective when neither too much or too little information is presented
  2. Principle of Appropriate Knowledge – Communication requires prior knowledge of pertinent concepts, jargon, and symbols
  3. Principle of Salience – Attention is drawn to large perceptible differences
  4. Principle of Discriminability – Two properties must differ by a large enough proportion or they will not be distinguished
  5. Principle of Perceptual Organization – People automatically group elements into units, which they then attend to and remember
  6. Principle of Compatibility – A message is easiest to understand if its form is compatible with its meaning
  7. Principle of Informative Changes – People expect changes in properties to carry information
  8. Principle of Capacity Limitations – People have a limited capacity to retain and to process information, and so will not understand a message if too much information must be retained and processed

Quotes from the book

“…you don’t want the audience to be lost in the admiration of the background of your slides.”

“Just as you wouldn’t blame Microsoft Word for every bad article you’ve read, you shouldn’t blame the Powerpoint program for every bad presentation you’ve seen.”


Kosslyn, S. Clear and to the Point. 2007. Oxford Press.

Book Review – Presentation Zen

This is one of the other great “must-have” books for presentation design enthusiasts!


Presentation Zen is very complementary to Slide:ology and very different in many ways as well. It was one of the first texts that I read during my “presentation design fellowship.” Presentation Zen is “about communication and about seeing presentations in a slightly different way, a way that is in tune with our times.” It is described as an “approach” to presentations. In it, Garr makes the case for this approach and give many amazing examples of slides and people that have implemented these ideas with great success. Like Slide:ology, the “weakness” of this book (probably more accurate to describe it as my own need this book doesn’t cover) is the integration of these ideas with education principles. But, that’s what I’m here for, I guess.

Quotable quotes from the book:

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci

“Such power there is in clear-eyed self-restraint.” – James Russell

“Our lives are frittered away by detail: simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau

“By stripping down an image to essential meaning, an artist can amplify that meaning.” – Scott McCloud

“The more strikingly visual your presentation is, the more people will remember it. And more importantly, they will remember you.” – Paul Arden


Reynolds, Garr. Presentation Zen. 2008. New Riders.

Book Review – Slide:ology


This is one of the books that started it all! Well, at least for me…

When I first became interested in presentation design, this was one of the first books that my mentors had me read. This is a must read for anyone interested in presentation design (and that should be all of us).

This book, written by Nancy Duarte, was my first introduction into the process of thinking visually, and also “how” to create slides that fit design principles. In it, she gives a brief history of visual aids, and makes a compelling argument for presenters to raise the “stakes” on their presentations. The majority of the book outlines the process of creating presentations and actually gets into the key ideas of creating slides with sections like “creating diagrams,” “displaying data,” and “using visual elements.” The book also uses case studies of various people, projects, and presentations to highlight the key ideas.

One of the few weaknesses of this book is that it doesn’t cover design for medical education. This book is more geared towards marketing and selling ideas. In it’s defense, there are very few that are geared towards design for medical education. Our needs in medical education are obviously different. Selling and idea versus promoting learning are much different goals. The same principles apply, but must be tailored to the audience and goals. 

With that said, this is still a must read for anyone serious about presentation design in any field. I find myself referring to it often. Below are some excerpts from the book. Enjoy!

Manifesto: The Five Theses of the Power of a Presentation

  1. Treat Your Audience as King
  2. Spread Ideas and Move People
  3. Help Them See What You Are Saying
  4. Practice Design, Not Decoration
  5. Cultivate Healthy Relationships

Quotes from the book:

“Presentation software is the first application broadly adopted by professionals that requires people to think visually. Unfortunately, most people never make the jump from verbal expression…”

“Simplicity is the essence of clear communication.”

“To communicate your data effectively, you first must articulate the conclusions you want your audience to adopt.”

“Effective slide design hinges on mastery of 3 things: Arrangement, Visual Elements, and Movement.”


Duarte, N. 2008. Slideology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. O’Reilly Media.