John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist focused on the genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. He has spent most of his professional life as a private research consultant, working primarily in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries on research related to mental health. He holds joint affiliate faculty appointments at the University of Washington School of Medicine, in its Department of Bioengineering, and at Seattle Pacific University, where he is the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research.
Medina was the founding director of the Talaris Research Institute, a Seattle-based research center originally focused on how infants encode and process information at the cognitive, cellular, and molecular levels. In 2004, Medina was appointed to the rank of affiliate scholar at the National Academy of Engineering. He has been named Outstanding Faculty of the Year at the College of Engineering at the University of Washington; the Merrill Dow/Continuing Medical Education National Teacher of the Year; and, twice, the Bioengineering Student Association Teacher of the Year. Medina has been a consultant to the Education Commission of the States and a regular speaker on the relationship between neurology and education. Medina’s books include: Brain Rules (Pear Press), Brain Rules for Baby (Pear Press), The Genetic Inferno, The Clock of Ages, Depression, What You Need to Know About Alzheimer’s, The Outer Limits of Life, Uncovering the Mystery of AIDS, and Of Serotonin, Dopamine and Antipsychotic Medications.
Morris: Before discussing Brain Rules, a few general questions. First, when and why did you first recognize the relevance of your formal education in the natural sciences to improving the quality of human life “at work, home, and school”?
Medina: The “when” was essentially immediate. My specialty is understanding the genetics of psychiatric disorders. The relevance is immediate simply because of the nature of the topic. Whether at work, home or school, everybody carries their brain around them, and if the organ suffers from a disorder, we carry the disorder around with us too.
The “why” was also immediate, but encased a straight-up morality argument. I was being funded with federal money – that means taxpayer money, your money. I felt like I owed it not only to tell you what we were doing – you were paying my paycheck, after all, but to try to it relevant to real life. It helps that I have spent the bulk of my research life as a private consultant, mostly to biotech and pharmaceutical. They deal with very practical questions, too.
Morris: Charles Darwin has much of value to say about the necessity of being adaptable to environment changes. In your opinion, why are so many people unwilling and/or unable to do that, or at least do that effectively?
Medina: The brain doesn’t care about change. As the world’s most sophisticated survival organ, the brain cares about loss. Change often involves loss, so change can be a risky experience.
This may have deep biological roots. Our ability to adapt came from our East African birthplace, a meteorologically unstable place. If you couldn’t adapt, you’d be dead. But once you’ve found a solution, there is no need to continue the adaptive behavioral parrying, which is bioenergetically very expensive to maintain. We are built to find answers, then hang on to them as long as we can.
Morris: In my opinion, the greatest leaders throughout history transformed the status quo in one form or another. In this sense, they were revolutionaries rather than evolutionaries. What are your own thoughts about this?
Medina: I would disagree, at least if you are talking about science. Historically very few discoveries were made out of thin air. Most of the greatest insights depended upon the intellectual ecology in which the scientists lived. A certain critical mass of “new findings” occurred, and bright people all over the world found out about it, and several read the tea leaves the same way. There’s an independent eureka moment for each of these bright guys, but it came because the environment suggested it, however subtly. I like the quote attributed to Newton “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. “
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