Dopamine Lollipops: Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules!

By Kelly Tait

Dr. Medina wants to make you laugh. And think about food. And sex.

In his high-energy closing plenary session at NASJE’s 2015 annual conference, Dr. Medina did a terrific job of informing and involving attendees. He vividly demonstrated how to apply research on learning and memory to judicial branch education. The “brain rules” he shared are worth revisiting, so this article will touch back on them and direct you where to go for more.

Dr. John J. Medina

Dr. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who, as he says, has a lifetime’s fascination with the mind, in particular how it reacts to and organizes information. He is the author of the New York
Times bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, and he is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

It’s easy to see why he has been awarded numerous teaching awards. Dr. Medina has a compelling ability to make brain science understandable and to highlight the relevance of concepts to his specific audience.

In his session, Dr. Medina said that there’s a lot we don’t know about the brain and how it works, but there are also some things we do know that can help educators turn on the light bulbs of learning. First we have to understand that our attention is like a vintage spotlight; we need to know how to control our learners’ spotlights.

The lessons Dr. Medina taught us about characteristics of our attentional spotlight started with the need to “chunk” information by putting it into digestible amounts since there is a limit on how much we can take in at one time. Ten minutes is the amount of time you have before you need to do something different or you risk losing your learners’ attention.

Another lesson is that the human brain ALWAYS processes meaning before it processes detail. To help our learners’ brains make meaning, Dr. Medina said that instructors need to address one of these six questions out loud every ten minutes: –Will it eat me? –Can I eat it? –Can I have sex with it? –Will it have sex with me? –Have I seen it before? –Have I never seen it before? Our brains are pattern matchers, trying to make sense of the world, and evolution has dictated that these questions are fundamental to our attention and our meaning-making.

He said when we get one of these questions addressed, our brains get a “dopamine lollipop” – a shot of dopamine, the powerful neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. We need to get and keep learners’ attention this way so we can move important information through the phases of memory.

Dr. Medina explained what the research on memory means for designing courses. Again, the field is defined as much by what isn’t known as by what is. We do know some things about declarative memory, which is sometimes called explicit memory or “knowing what” – it is memory of facts and events that can be consciously recalled (or “declared”). According to Dr. Medina, the human brain on average can hold seven pieces of information for 30 seconds in our immediate memory buffer. If you don’t do something with it within 30 seconds (repeat it or apply it) then the brain will dump it.

In the next stage, working memory can hold information for up to120 minutes, but if it’s not repeated or otherwise used or reinforced within those two hours, learners will lose it. If instructors build in ways both to hit the 30 second mark and the 120 minute mark, then the information moves to long-term memory. The bad news is that it takes about ten years before a memory is fully consolidated, meaning it is infinitely retrievable and not subject to corruption.

Dr. Medina also briefly discussed episodic memory—which relates to personal experiences and specific events or “episodes”—which follows different rules. We only need to get this kind of knowledge once to make it stick, but it’s much more subject to change and can be corrupted. As participants in the session learned, one takeaway on the subject of memory was just how complex the topic is and how much we still have to learn. According to Dr. Medina, “Human memory is just controlled forgetting.”

Another takeaway on learning and memory was his advice to think about knowledge the way we think about booster shots – we need it more than once to get its full effect and to maintain it. He cited the work of Dr. Alan Baddeley, a British psychologist who conducted a landmark study in 1975 called “The Capacity of Short Term Memory” and who continues to do work in the field. For more on Dr. Baddeley’s research, see

While Dr. Medina gave—and reinforced—some excellent information directly relevant to our profession, there’s much more where that came from. Dr. Medina’s website has information, references, and videos highlighting the concepts he discussed and lots in addition to that at His book is available there as well as at

Dr. Medina’s presentation was quite a ride—as fun and memorable as it was relevant. Applying his Brain Rules to our judicial education classrooms will make for better learning.

Kelly TaitAbout the Author
Kelly Tait is an adjunct professor in Communication Studies at the University Nevada’s School of Social Research and Justice Studies. She has been a communication consultant in judicial branch education for 14 years and is Immediate Past President of NASJE.