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MALE SPEAKER: We have a very,
very special guest with us
I remember reading
Charlie Munger saying
that he didn’t know a smart man
who didn’t read all the time.
And he has categorized Warren
Buffett as a learning machine.
The inspiration from there
is how does one become
a very effective learner?
What is the science of learning?
And reading Barb’s book,
that is exactly what the book
seems to be teaching us.
And I have loved
reading her book.
Not only loved
reading her book, I
could identify that
the voice in that book
is the voice of a teacher, and
that resonated a lot with me
So I’m very glad Barb
is here with us today.
So without further ado,
ladies and gentlemen,
please join me in
welcoming Barb Oakley.

a pleasure to be here.
And I’d like to
begin by telling you
a little story– another one.
And this story is about–
well, I think all of us
love to watch other
people, right?
To some greater
or lesser extent.
And I love people watching.
And so I have to tell
you about this one
guy who was one of the
most interesting people
I’ve ever watched.
And this was when
I was working down
in Antarctica at
McMurdo Station,
and this guy’s name was Neil.
And Neil was this
thin, wispy little guy
with kind of a
high-pitched voice.
And he had a big
head, so he looked
like this sort of upside-down
exclamation point.
And what Neil used to like
to do is he liked to pick up
the phone and answer it
with a perfect imitation
of the 6’8″ gorilla of a
station manager, Art Brown.
So one day, phone rings.
Neil picks it up, as usual.
This is Art Brown speaking.”
And it was Art Brown on
the other end of the line.
So Art says, who
the heck is this?
Or more unprintable
words to that effect.
And Neil says, why,
Art, this is you.
I’m so glad you’ve finally
gotten in touch with yourself.
And so that’s actually what
we’re going to do here today,
is to help you to get more
in touch with yourself
and what you’re
doing when you’re
doing one of the
most important things
you can do as a human being,
and that is to learn new things.
Now, to start, I
have to tell you
a little bit about my
background and growing up.
I grew up moving
all over the place.
By the time I’d
hit 10th grade, I’d
lived in 10 different places.
Now, moving around a lot
like this has some benefits,
but it also has some drawbacks,
or potential drawbacks.
And one of the things
for me was math
is a very sequential topic.
And if you miss it anywhere
along the line, right?
Somebody’s a little
bit further ahead,
and you’re from the school
where it was a little behind.
All of a sudden,
you can actually
fall off the bandwagon,
and then you’ve fallen off.
It’s hard to get back on.
And that’s what
happened to me early on.
I fell off the math bandwagon.
Just said, I can’t do this.
I hate it.
I really want nothing
to do with it at all.
Science is the same way.
And so I basically
flunked my way
through elementary, middle, and
high school math and science.
And it’s really funny,
thinking back on it now,
because I’m a professor
of engineering.
And I publish well in
some of the top journals,
so I do very well
as an engineer.
But one day, one of my students
found out about my sordid past
as a math flunky, and he asked
me, he said, how’d you do it?
How’d you change your brain?
And I thought, you
know, how did I do it?
I mean, looking back on it,
I was just this little kid,
and I loved animals, and I
liked fluffy, furry things,
and I liked to knit, and I loved
language and studying language.
And at that time, there
weren’t college loans
that were relatively
straightforward to get.
And so I really wanted
to learn a language.
And I couldn’t afford
to go to school,
and so how could
I study language
in that kind of situation?
And there was one
way I could do it.
I could actually go
and learn a language
and get paid for it
while I was doing it.
And that was to join the Army.
And so that’s what I did.
I joined the Army.
And there you see me,
looking incredibly nervous,
about to throw a hand grenade.
And I did learn a language.
I learned Russian.
And I ended up working
out on Russian trawlers,
Soviet trawlers, up
in the Bering Sea.
And that’s me standing
on a bunch of fish there.
I can still swear
quite well in Russian,
although the rest of the
Russian’s a little rusty.
But I loved having adventures
and gaining new perspectives.
And so I also ended up
at the South Pole station
in Antarctica.
And that’s where
I met my husband.
So I always say, I had to
go to the end of the Earth
to meet that man, and I did.
So the thing is, though,
what was going on
was I began to realize
that you know, I was always
interested in these
new perspectives,
but they always
sort of perspectives
that I was kind of
comfortable with somehow.
You know, and having
adventures, that’s
sort of a comfortable thing.
But I wasn’t actually
kind of stretching myself
to really have a
totally new perspective,
I thought back on the
engineers that I’d
worked with, West
Point engineers, who
were in the military.
And I realized that their
problem-solving skills were,
in many ways, exceptional.
They could think in a way
that I couldn’t think.
And I thought, you
know, what if I
could read these
kinds of equations
like they could read equations?
What if I could, in some
sense, learn the language
that they were able to speak.
Could I actually change my
brain to learn in that way?
To learn what these people knew?
And so as I began to try to
answer that student’s question,
how did you change your brain?
I started working on a book
to kind of describe what
some of these key ideas were.
And while I was
working on this book,
I did things like I went
Probably a few of you
who’ve been in schools
realize that that’s a
pretty good website.
And I looked to see who were
the top professors worldwide,
teaching subjects like
engineering, math, chemistry,
physics, economics, a lot of
really difficult subjects.
And a lot of very
relevant subjects,
as well, like
psychology, even English.
How did they teach so
people could learn,
and how did they
learn themselves?
And I also reached out to
top cognitive psychologists
and neuroscientists.
And my background
also informed this.
I’ve taught for several decades
as an engineering professor,
done active research
in active learning.
And so all of these things
kind of combined together.
And what I found that I thought
was very interesting was when
I reached out to all these
professors, a lot of the ones
in the STEM disciplines
in particular– Science,
Engineering, and Math–
used these approaches
that might involve things
like metaphor or analogy.
But they were very
embarrassed to say
that, because other professors
would kind of be like,
oh, you’re dumbing things down.
But it was actually
something that all
of these top professors used
to more easily communicate
the ideas.
It was like this
shared handshake.
They all knew how
to do it, but they
didn’t realize these
other top professors were
using the same approaches.
So what I’m going
to tell you now
is I’m going to give
you some insight.
This, these, are the
key ideas related
to learning that all of
these people have discovered.
So first off, we know that the
brain is really complicated.
So what we’re going
to do is simplify it.
And you can simplify
the brain’s operation
into two fundamentally
different modes.
First one is what I’ll
call focused mode,
and the second is what
I’ll call the diffuse mode.
And this is actually– it
relates to the default mode
network and other related–
there’s some 24 or 25 so far–
neural resting states
that have been detected.
And so all of these
states altogether,
I’ll just call the diffuse mode.
And what can happen–
I mean, our best
way to really understand
these two different modes
is to use a metaphor.
And the metaphor
we’re going to use
is that of a pinball machine.
And a pinball machine,
you all know how it works.
You just take the pinball and
you pull back on the plunger,
and a ball was boinking
around on the rubber bumpers,
and that’s how you get points.
And what we’re
going to do is we’re
going to take that
pinball machine,
and we’re going to
superimpose it on the brain.
And you see the
brain right here.
Here’s the little ears, and
there’s the nose right there.
And what we’re
going to do, we’re
going to take that
pinball machine
and we’re going to put
it right on the brain.
And there you go.
There’s the pinball
machine on the brain.
And you can see how you can
pull back on the plunger there,
and you’ve got all these
little pinballs in there,
or the rubber bumpers,
and they’re all very close
So what happens is in
focused mode-type thinking,
like what I’m
showing right here,
you’ve got these close
together bumpers,
and you often have patterns
that are already here.
For example, if you’ve already
learned how to multiply,
and you’re trying to do
a multiplication problem,
you would sit in
focused mode, and you’ve
got these patterns
that are already there.
And you think a thought,
and it takes off,
and it moves roughly
around the rubber bumpers
along the pathways it’s
already been in before,
that you’ve developed
as a consequence
of previous learning.
But what if the pattern
you’re trying to think
is something new?
What if you already know
about multiplication,
but you’ve never
encountered division before?
So you’re trying to
understand this idea.
Or the concept of
limits in calculus.
How do you go at a
completely new idea
that you’ve never
encountered before?
Well, that’s where this
other way the brain works,
in diffuse mode thinking,
can actually be a benefit.
Now, take a look.
Here’s the representative
of the diffuse mode.
And it’s just an analogy,
but it’s a very good one
that helps us understand.
Look at how far apart
those rubber bumpers are.
When you think a
thought in diffuse mode,
the thoughts can range
much more widely.
Now you can’t think in
a tight-grain fashion
to actually solve the
particulars of a problem,
but you can at least
get to a new sort of way
of thinking about things that
you couldn’t have gotten if you
were just in the focused mode.
In fact, sometimes,
when you’re trying
to solve a really
difficult problem,
the worst thing you
could do is just keep
sitting there and focusing
and focusing on it.
Because you can be up on
that part of the brain,
so to speak, and yet you need
to be in a completely different
So the best thing to
do when you’re really
stuck and frustrated
on a problem
is not to keep focusing on it.
You actually need to get
in a very different mode
of thinking.
And that’s what’s
represented here.
And so what this
means practically
for you is you’re sitting there,
you’re working– hey, get out.
Go for a run.
Go down and have a– go take
a shower if you need to.
Or do something that really
gets your mind totally off it.
Because when you’re
in this mode,
as long as your attention
is focused on that problem,
you’re still in this
mode, and you can’t get
to this way of solving things.
So how can this
play out for people?
If you look at this
guy right here–
he was Salvador
Dali, one of the most
brilliant of the Surrealist
painters of the 20th century.
He’s shown here with
his pet ocelot, Babou.
And what Dali used
to do is this.
He’d sit in a chair when he had
kind of an intractable problem
with his paintings to solve.
He’d sit, and he’d relax,
and he’d relax away.
And just as he’d
relaxed so much,
you know, kind of letting
his mind run free,
he’d have a key in his hand.
And just as he’d relax so
much that he’d fall asleep,
the key would fall
from his hand,
the clatter would wake
him up, and off he’d
go with this new idea
from the diffuse mode,
taking it back to the
focused mode, where he could
refine and really use them.
So you might think,
well, you know,
that’s just great for artists.
But what if you’re an engineer?
If you look at this guy right
here, this was Thomas Edison.
And what Edison used to do,
at least according to legend,
was he’d sit in a chair with
ball bearings in his hand.
And he’d relax and relax,
and then finally when
he’d fall asleep,
the ball bearings
would fall from his hand.
And whatever he’d, in
his very relaxed way,
been thinking about,
he’d be able to take
some of those ideas
from that mode
and bring them back with him
to the focused mode, where
he could refine it, analyze,
and come up with some
of those brilliant inventions.
So the lesson for us, out
of all of this, is this.
I’m giving some exemplary
innovators in various fields.
But whenever you’re
solving a problem,
even if it’s a
problem that thousands
or even millions of other people
have solved before, for you,
it’s the very first time that
you’ve solved that problem.
And you need to use some of
these same creative approaches
that these other brilliant
thinkers have used.
And what you want
to do, be aware of,
is that you can
be in focused mode
or you can be in diffuse
mode, but you can’t really–
as far as we know, unless
you’re an exceptionally
well-trained monk– be in
both modes at the same time.
So focused or diffuse.
And you want to
develop both modes.
Diffuse thinking is
often not conscious,
but it is also learning.
And so that’s why that
relaxation process can also
be very important.
Now I just wanted to give
you a quick image here.
This shows some of the brilliant
connectivity of the default
mode network.
See all these connections
here between various aspects
of the brain?
This is a web for
one mode of working,
but focused mode has
a very different web.
So if you’re only
focusing, you’re
not making access
or getting access
to a lot of the different
connections that
are available for you.
That’s why going back
and forth between modes
can be so very important.
Now, it takes time to do this.
That’s why you can’t
sit down and just
solve a difficult
problem immediately.
You often have to go back
and forth between the modes.
And in some sense, you
can almost think of it
like this is a weight-lifter.
And a weight-lifter, he
doesn’t cram the night
before a big meet and
build muscles like that.
It takes time to
develop those muscles.
In the same way, it takes time
to develop the neural scaffold
that is involved in learning
and in new thinking processes.
But I know what you’re
really thinking.
You may be thinking,
I’m a procrastinator.
I wait.
Sometimes I don’t, like,
have time to do stuff, right?
And so let’s talk a little
bit about procrastination.
And sometimes you can be a
really effective human being
but still procrastinate
about some things.
And so in that sense,
there are things
to learn to help improve
your productivity
and your effectiveness
in what you do.
So procrastination arises
in a very interesting way.
Studies have shown that if
you look at something you
don’t like, the pain centers of
your brain actually activate.
So if you look at a book for
a subject you don’t like,
you can actually feel a twinge,
and we can see it in the brain,
if you’re being imaged.
So what do you do
when you feel pain?
I mean, it’s the same
pain as when you hammer
your thumb with a hammer.
Well, you have two different
ways of handling it.
The first way is you can work
through it, like 20 minutes
or so, and the pain will
gradually disappear.
But if you’re like most
people, what you’ll do
is you’ll just kind of turn
your attention away to something
more pleasant, and guess what?
You’ll feel better
immediately, right?
And so in some sense,
can actually be a little
bit like an addiction.
You do it once,
you do it twice–
it’s not that big a deal.
You do it a lot
of times, though,
and it actually can be very,
very detrimental for your life.
So I’m an engineer.
I believe in totally
practical, useful things.
So what I’m going to do
is cut right to the chase
and say here’s the
most effective way
to help you deal
with procrastination.
And it is simply to use
the Pomodoro Technique.
And this is a technique that
was developed by Francesco
Cirillo in the 1980s.
And it involved– he called
it the Pomodoro Technique
because he had a
tomato-shaped timer,
and pomodoro is
Italian for tomato.
And what he would
do is he would–
he recommends you set
a timer for 25 minutes.
Actually, you can
have different times.
Different time lengths are
useful for different people.
But you set it, in
general, for 25 minutes,
and then you turn
off everything else.
So no alarms, no instant
messages– anything
that can disturb
your concentration,
you turn that off.
And then you work with as
careful a focused attention
as you can for those 25 minutes.
Now sometimes, I’ll be
working away, and I’ll think,
am I really focusing
as hard as I can?
And then I think,
well, obviously not,
because I just got
distracted, and I’m
wondering whether I’m focusing
instead of actually working.
But I let that
thought just drift by,
and then I get back
to my work, right?
And that’s what you’re
doing in this technique.
You want to just keep
your mind on your work.
And what happens is
because you’re only
focusing on the task and the
time, and not the pain of “I
must complete this task,” it
somehow makes it so much easier
to do.
I mean, anybody,
virtually anybody,
can sit for 25 minutes and work.
And then when you’re
done, you reward yourself.
And that reward is
actually very important.
Because what you’re
doing is you’re
focusing during
the focused mode,
but then you want to train
yourself to relax, and enjoy,
and do something different.
Just surf the web, go out for
a– whatever floats your boat,
you go off and do that.
And this, actually,
is important.
Because we know that some
aspects of learning take
place during this
relaxed process.
So your tendency is
to think, I’m not
working when I’m not focusing.
But you actually are.
So it kind of gives
you a little bit
of a feeling of relief
and accomplishment
that is OK to relax.
So a couple of little pointers.
First, don’t sit down and
do a Pomodoro and say,
you know, I’m going
to finish off my work.
Don’t focus on the task.
Only focus on the time.
And that’s the trick
to this technique.
Because it gets you past
that pain in the brain
and allows you to just
relax comfortably and get
into the flow of the task.
The other thing
is don’t say, OK,
I’m going to do 20
Pomodoros today,
and think that you’re going
to beat yourself into more
productivity that way.
You want to just gradually start
getting used to this technique,
and you’ll see that it
works very, very well.
Now another aspect that’s really
important, related to learning,
is we’ve also been
told, hey, sleep’s
really important before a big
test or something like that.
Actually, sleep is important
in a lot of different ways.
And I’m going to
talk to you, just
mention a little bit of one of
the primary important reasons
that sleep’s important
for learning.
We’ve found that if
you look at the cells–
these little circles
here represent
cells, neurons, in the brain.
And what happens when
you go to sleep is this.
Well, when you’re awake–
first, when you’re awake,
these metabolites will
come out, and they’ll
go in between the junctions.
And they kind of sit out
there, and they’re essentially
toxins in your brain.
So when you’re
awake, these toxins
are gradually accumulating
in your brain.
And they affect your judgment.
That’s why, when you stay
awake a longer and longer time,
it’s more and more
difficult to think clearly.
So when you go to sleep,
though, here’s what happens.
Now watch very carefully to
what happens to those cells.
You go to sleep, they shrink.
I’ll do that again,
because I just
have so much fun doing this.
They shrink when
you go to sleep.
And because they
shrink, what that does
is that allows fluids
to wash by the cells
and wash these metabolites out.
So a very important
part of sleep
is just the housekeeping,
the cleaning
that takes place, that
allows your brain to function
so much more effectively.
Now, another very
important aspect of sleep
relates to neural
synaptic growth.
In this wonderful paper by Guang
Yang — she’s out of Langone–
is if you look at
the top picture,
you can see here
what’s going on.
This is the same neuron
at the top and the bottom.
The top neuron is before
learning and before sleep.
The bottom neuron is after
learning and after sleep.
All of these little triangles
or new synaptic connections.
And so when you learn
something and you go to sleep,
that’s when the new synaptic
connections are forming.
And this is what’s going
on when you’re learning.
So that’s why it’s very
important, when you’re
learning something
new– again, you
don’t want to cram
at the last minute.
You want to have many short
learning periods, sleep,
learning, sleep,
and that’s helping
you build that
neural scaffold that
helps you learn so much better.
So there’s another
aspect of learning,
and people often think this
is so completely disconnected
from real learning that
they even are taking away
recess from kids.
Because they’re like, oh,
that doesn’t help them learn.
Only when they’re sitting in
front of us, learning from us,
that’s when they really learn.
But that’s not true at all.
We’re now finding how
incredibly important exercise
is to the learning process.
Now if you look here, this
study was is of a mouse,
and they were
training this mouse
to differentiate between
two different symbols.
And if you look in the
background, what’s happening
is all of these blue
blobs are old neurons.
Now we used to think you are
born with all the neurons
that you have, and
that’s what you
got for the rest of your life.
Well, of course, now we
know that’s not true.
But it was wisdom, received
wisdom, for many decades.
And so what they found was–
see these red lines here?
Those are actually
the new neurons
that are being born
every day in all of us,
as well as in this mouse,
in the hippocampus.
And that is how–
those are absolutely
essential to our ability
to learn and remember
new information.
There’s two ways to allow
these new neurons to grow
and survive.
One is you get exposed
to new environments.
That’s why travel
can be so good.
That’s where your
learning can be effective.
And these kinds of things can
help those new neurons survive.
But the other way of helping
these neurons survive
that’s just as powerful as
learning is simply to exercise.
So exercise is
profoundly important.
And I’m not talking,
hey, I’ve got
to be an Olympic weight-lifter,
or be a marathon runner.
Even simple walking can
be very, very effective.
And I’m sure you’ve
all had the experience.
You’re all muzzy-brained, and
then you go out for a walk,
and it clears up
your way of thinking.
But even a few days
of an exercise program
is doing much more than that.
It’s actually enhancing
the ability of your neurons
to grow and survive.
Now, if you look, there’s a name
right here, Terrence Sejnowski.
He was on one of the
original papers doing
this original research.
He’s the Francis Crick
Professor at the Salk Institute,
and she’s also my colleague in
doing the Massive Open Online
Course that’s based on the book.
And Terry is– he’s
a remarkable guy.
And it was really a lot of fun
making the Massive Open Online
Course with him.
And so we went and we did
some filming together.
And so then I asked him, I
said, well, Terry, you know,
you’re talking all this
stuff about the importance
of exercise.
Do you exercise?
What do you do?
And he’s like, do I exercise?
And what he does is he goes and
every day, or every few days,
he goes down– he’s
like a mountain goat.
The guy’s 65, and
he climbs down.
You know, I’m
scrambling after him.
And he goes running on the
beach, just like you see here.
And this is how he
gets his exercise.
I love how he finishes here.
Watch this.
Look at that.
So he is a legend
in neuroscience.
And I’m convinced
that part of it
is because he uses
some of these ideas
that he’s found in his
research to help him really
keep his edge intellectually.
Now, so let’s just talk a
little bit about something
called working memory.
Working memory is how you
keep a brief thought in mind.
It used to be
thought that you had
seven slots in working
memory, and that’s
why you could hold a phone
number of seven numbers.
But now we’re kind of realizing
it’s more like maybe there’s
four slots in working memory.
So maybe for me, it’s like
two slots in working memory.
But anyway, so you
have four slots,
and it in your prefrontal–
you can kind of think of it
as your working memory,
you’re holding things
in your prefrontal cortex.
So I’ve got it kind of
symbolized right there
as your four slots
of working memory.
So when you are
remembering something,
are thinking about something
with working memory,
you can think of
it symbolically,
at least, as something like
an octopus, the Octopus
of Attention, that reaches
through those slots
of working memory
and makes connections
between different ideas.
And that’s why you can’t
hold too many ideas at once
in your brain before
you get all confused.
But what happens if
you’re multitasking?
What happens if you’ve kind
of got a little bit of an eye
out here on some, you know– am
I getting an instant message?
In some sense, that’s like
taking one of those tentacles
away of your working memory.
And you don’t have
a lot of tentacles.
So it really is kind
of actually making
whatever intellectual
heft you have,
you’re kind of
losing some of it.
You’re getting a little stupider
when you’re multitasking.
So that’s why careful focused
attention is so incredibly
important, especially when
you’re working on something
that’s rather difficult.
Now, I just like to contrast
this with the diffuse mode.
The diffuse mode, it’s
a lot of connections,
but they’re much more random
in how they take place.
So how do you take something
from working memory
into long-term memory, which
is more distributed around
in your brain?
Well, the best way
is through practice.
Practice makes, in
some sense, permanent.
The more you practice, the
broader that little neural
pathway becomes, and the more
deeply embedded it becomes.
So if you’re learning
something and you practice,
those patterns get
deeper and deeper.
And that’s how you can
learn something and draw it
from long-term memory
into working memory.
If you don’t practice,
what’s going to happen
is you’ve got those
neurons, and it’s almost
like you’ve got these little
metabolic vampires that just
come and they suck
those patterns away
before they can get deepened.
And so that’s why sometimes
you can learn something
from a professor– you
even understand it.
You’ve had that great
stroke of insight.
You walk away.
You don’t look at
it for a few days,
and those little
metabolic vampires just
suck that pattern away.
And you can’t really
remember or understand
what you had learned previously.
So the best way to get
patterns well-embedded
in your long-term
memory is to practice
through spaced repetition.
So you might practice
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
maybe again on Friday.
And by spacing things
out, you realize, now,
that you’re getting those new
synaptic connections growing
every time you learn a little
and then you sleep on it.
What you don’t want
to do is this kind
of thing, where you’re just
kind of cramming like crazy.
And then look, that
metabolic vampire just
kind of sucks at all away, and
you’re left with very little.
It’s hard to remember
what you were learning.
A good way to think about this
is just the analogy of a wall.
If you’re building a brick
wall and you give yourself
time between layers
of mortar, it can set,
and you can build a
solid, sturdy wall.
But if you don’t, it’s
all kind of a jumble.
And it doesn’t turn into
a really good structure
that you can actually use.
So let’s go back
again, and we’re
going to talk a little
bit more, quickly,
about attention, and the
relationship with working
Now, if you look
here, you can see
you’ve got one slot in your
working memory that’s filled.
When you have one slot filled,
you could put other things
in your working memory.
But here’s the trick.
How do you get things
into just one slot?
It turns out that if you
create a chunk, one chunk,
of the material, it’s easy
to pull into working memory.
So here’s what I mean by that.
If you look here, here’s a raw
pattern of information, right?
It’s a puzzle.
It’s hard to figure out.
It looks like a mad scramble.
And look what’s going on
in your working memory.
It’s kind of going
a little crazy,
trying to figure things out.
In fact, recent
research at Stanford
has shown children who are
trying to learn math facts,
their little prefrontal
cortexes are going crazy
as they try to assimilate
and master the material.
But once they’ve got those
math facts down, this relaxes.
What’s actually
happening is this.
They’ve got the essential idea,
and what that essential idea
is like is one smooth,
single ribbon they can easily
pull into working memory
when they need to,
in order to understand and make
connections with other problems
that they’re trying to solve.
Now, if you just
memorize and you’re not
understanding what
you’re memorizing,
that’s like creating
that little circle there.
And you can see it.
You’ve got it.
It really is a chunk.
But you can’t fit it very
well with other chunks.
So there’s another important
idea about chunking,
and that’s this.
Once you’ve compressed an
idea– one of the most brilliant
was mentioning one
of the great aspects of
math is simply that idea
that you can compress it.
You grapple, grapple, grapple,
and all of a sudden, it clicks,
and you’ve got it compressed.
Once you’ve got it
compressed in a chunk,
there’s actually– you can
make that chunk bigger, right?
Just like learning a
little piece of song?
You can actually learn another
piece and join them together,
and you’ve got a bigger chunk.
Or you can also learn similar
chunks of other disciplines,
and it’s very, very helpful.
That’s an idea of transfer.
But what you’re
really doing when
you’re learning and
mastering a topic
is you are, in some sense,
creating a library of chunks.
And you can draw on
that library and make
connections between things.
And that’s how great
creativity arises,
is making connections
with those chunks.
So true experts often have
enormous libraries of chunks
that they’ve developed.
Now, when you’re
learning, there’s
sort of a– you can think of it
as there’s a top-down approach.
So if you’re
learning a new topic,
you can almost think of it
like there’s a chunk there,
that’s that tire, and here’s
a chunk that’s the man’s face,
and another tire.
So you’re learning
all these chunks,
and when you get them
all kind of learned,
it forms the big
picture of the material.
Even if you’re missing a
few pieces here and there,
you’ve still got
that big picture.
But if you don’t practice
and repeat and really master
your chunks, it’s like this.
It’s like you’re trying to
put together the big picture
with chunks that are faint.
And it’s much harder to put
together the big picture
with that in mind.
So again, as I
was saying, you’ve
got one ribbon of thought.
That’s a chunk.
Here is another chunk
in another field,
but it’s of a similar shape.
And that’s the idea of transfer.
So if you’re a
physicist, you may
be able to learn
economics more easily,
because some of the chunks are
really similar in their shape.
If you are a language
learner and you’re
learning math and science,
there are meta-chunks available.
For example, that idea of
practice and repetition
for language also applies in
learning math and science.
So let’s go to some
other aspect that I
think relates to learning.
Some of you may
say– so of you may
have wonderful memories here.
But some of you may wish
you had better memories.
Well, let me kind of give
you a little awareness.
What you think may be
a negative attribute
actually can be a very,
very positive attribute.
It turns out that when you have
a poor working memory, what
that really means is you
can’t hold things in mind
very well, right?
So you’re looking at your
colleague who can remember
all this different stuff.
They can hold it in
their working memory,
turn somersaults with it, and
come up with new ideas really
And you’re lucky
to remember what
they were even talking about.
But here’s the thing.
Research has shown that if you
have a poor working memory,
and your four slots
are pretty weak,
other stuff is
always slipping in.
That’s why you can’t hold
ideas very well in your mind.
But because the other
stuff is slipping in,
you’re actually more creative.
And research has shown that
if you have Attention Deficit
Disorder, or your attention
wanders– oh, shiny!
Then what that means
is you have much more
potential for being creative.
Do you have to work harder
than some other people
in order to make up for that?
Yeah, you do.
But that comes
with the trade-off
that you are highly creative.
So you can be very, very
valuable in your job,
even though you may have
to work harder sometimes
to have that achievement.
Now, you may say, well,
that’s all well and good,
but I’m actually a slow thinker.
I see these other people, and
they’ve got like a super race
car brain.
They can pick up
these ideas so fast,
and I kind of move
along more slowly.
Well, one of my heroes
in the history of science
is the Nobel Prize
winner Santiago Ramon y
Cajal, who’s known as the
father of modern neuroscience.
Ramon y Cajal was not a
genius, and he said so himself.
Part of what he did was he
worked hard and was persistent.
But he said, these
with race car brains–
which he was not–
often race along
and they jump to conclusions
that he didn’t miss.
He would see them, and he was
more flexible in his thinking.
When he’d see a mistake,
he would go, wait a minute.
Whereas the race car
driver is so used
to being right and being
fast that they’re much less
able to be persistent
and to flexibly
change in the light
of contradictory data.
So if you have a slow brain,
think of it like this.
There’s the person with
the race car brain.
But you’re the hiker,
and your experience
is completely different.
You walk along.
You can see the little rabbit
trails that they’ve missed.
You can reach out and
touch the pine needles.
You can smell the pine forest.
All of this is missed
by the race car driver.
So your way of thinking can
be exceptionally valuable,
as well.
In fact, Maryam Mirzakhani,
she won the Fields Medal,
which is the top
award in mathematics,
the equivalent for mathematics
of the Nobel Prize.
And she was told
as a young person,
you think too slowly
to be a mathematician.
Well, guess what?
She’s one of the most
creative mathematicians alive.
So if you think slowly,
more power to you.
You’re doing good.
Now, I also want to
bring up another aspect,
and that is the aspect
of the impostor syndrome.
This is so important
and so common.
And what it is, it’s
a feeling like you’re
the fake in the room, right?
I’m working here?
Maybe I’m working at
Google and I’m really not
as good as they say that I am,
and I’m kind of an impostor
And people feel this
all over the world,
no matter what they’re doing.
You’re a professor?
Oh, wait a minute.
You know, they’re going to find
out what the real truth is.
I took a test, and I did well.
But next time,
I’m gonna fail it,
because I know they’ll find
out what the real truth is.
Really, really common feeling.
And the best way to address
the impostor syndrome
is to just be aware
how common it is.
So next time you
have a thought like,
I’m really not as
good as they say
I am, remember, that’s the
impostor syndrome talking.
And probably one of the
most important things
that I could bring
up– and so that’s
why I’m doing it
towards the end here–
is this idea of illusions
of competence in learning.
Now, let’s say that
suddenly, for some reason,
a bear came hurtling
out of this screen
and rampaging through the room.
Would you feel a surge of
adrenaline and nervous energy?
I mean, suddenly your body
would react physiologically
to this feeling of intense fear
as you realized the bear was
actually in front of you.
But the thing is, when you think
about learning situations–
we often say, students
will come up and say,
you know, I have test anxiety.
That’s why I didn’t
do well on this test.
But for a lot of
students, sadly,
sitting down and
looking at a test
is like there’s a bear there.
They just realized,
at that moment,
that they really didn’t
know the material,
even though they
thought they did.
So students, and people,
can fool themselves
that they’re learning
something when they’re actually
not learning something.
So I’ll give you some of the
best ways for truly learning
First off, tests are the best.
Test yourself on
everything, all the time.
The same hour spent
testing as opposed
to that hour spent studying,
you will learn far more
by taking a test.
And use flashcards.
Flashcards are not just
for language learners.
Why let them have all the fun?
Flashcards are for ordinary–
for learning in math
and science, for example.
If you talk to great poets,
what great ports will tell
you is memorize the
poem, because you’ll
feel the passion and the power
of the poem much more deeply.
Why should mathematicians not
be able to share in this fun?
How about engineers?
When we have equations, if
you memorize the equation,
and really look at what does it
mean while you’re doing that,
it actually can bring
out the richness
of what you’re learning.
And the thing is when
you’re having homework.
Homework– a lot
of times, people
make the mistake
of thinking, hey,
you know, I did my
homework problem.
And it’s like saying,
I’m learning the piano
and I played this piano piece
one time, and so I’ve got it.
Well, nobody does
that when they’re
learning a musical instrument.
And in the same way,
when you’re studying,
you don’t want to just do
a homework problem once.
You don’t have time
to do all of them
and kind of repeat them, but
pick some of the key ones
and see if you can do it again.
Like practice it, and
maybe do it in your mind.
Can you step through
all the steps?
If you can play it almost
like a song in your mind,
you’ve really got it.
You’ve got it down
as a chunk, and that
can help build your
knowledge of the material.
Now, probably the most
valuable technique
when you’re trying to really
understand something difficult
is simple recall.
When you’re reading material
on a page, you read away,
and your tendency
is to– well, I’m
going to underline it, right?
Because when you’re hand
is moving on the page,
you think it’s moving it
into your brain somehow.
But it actually is not.
So resist the urge.
You can do a little
bit of underlining.
But it’s better to write
it, because you’re helping
to neurally encode these ideas.
And then when you
read the page, simply
look away and see
what you can recall.
That, as it turns out, is
very powerful in building
your understanding of
the material in a way
that other techniques, including
mind mapping and re-reading–
they’re not nearly
as good as recall.
So another very important
aspect is simply
to study judiciously
with other people,
or talk about what you’re
trying to understand
with other people.
Now, this has to be
done judiciously.
Obviously, all learning
does not take place
in a cooperative fashion.
Sometimes you have to go off.
But when you’re
learning something sort
of in focused mode,
there’s a part-and-parcel
of that focused mode,
and that is a feeling
that what you’ve just
learned is correct, right?
This sort of rightness feeling.
And the only way you can really
disabuse yourself, sometimes,
is to go off and bounce your
ideas off of other people.
And they can almost serve like
a greater kind of diffuse mode,
to help disabuse you when
you do make mistakes.
So judicious studying with
friends and conversation
with colleagues can
be incredibly helpful.
Also, explain in a way that
a 10-year-old can understand.
So frequently we
explain electricity,
the flow of electricity, as
water, the flow of water.
It’s an analogy.
It breaks down.
All analogies break down.
But Richard Feynman, the
Nobel Prize-winning physicist,
used to go around and challenge
top mathematicians in the world
to explain in a simple
way, like in a way
that their grandmothers
could understand,
what they were doing.
And you know what?
They could.
So this means that no
matter how difficult
that problem is that
you’re working on,
if you find a way to
explain it simply,
you’ll be able to understand
it much more deeply.
One thing to do
is insert yourself
into whatever the problem is.
Like, here I am in a
copper matrix, right?
Barbara McClintock, the Nobel
Prize-winning geneticist,
used to kind of imagine herself
down at a genetic level,
so she could understand and see
how the genes might actually
be operating.
So that’s a trick that’s often
used by some of the greatest
Try to find a way
to get yourself
into almost like
a play, whatever
you’re trying to understand.
If you want some more
information about what
I’ve talked about here,
there’s much more in the book,
“A Mind For Numbers.”
And there’s a lot
more– and it’s all
free– in the
Massive Open Online
Course for Coursera, through
UC San Diego, Learning
How to Learn.
And that is the key,
except for one thing.
I’d like to leave you
with this last thought.
We’re often told,
follow your passion.
That is the key to everything.
Just follow your passion,
and your life will really
be a better place for it.
We’re told that.
But some things–
your passion develops
about what you really good at.
And some things take much
longer to get good at.
So don’t just follow
your passions.
Broaden your passions.
And your lives will
be greatly enriched.
Thank you very much.

MALE SPEAKER: Thanks, Barb,
for the fantastic talk.
Now we’ll open it up for
a few questions for Barb.
Please raise your hand
if you have a question,
and I’ll bring the
mic over to you.
of the questions
I had was that, you know,
whenever learning things
and tackling tough
problems, people always
say, well, break it
down into smaller parts
that you know how to do.
And so I wondered how that fits
into the focused and diffuse
Because that seems kind of
like breaking a diffuse problem
into a bunch of
focused problems.

what that really relates
to is that idea of chunks.
So remember that you’ve got
four slots in working memory.
The more you can understand
one simple part of it
and make it into
a chunk, and then
another little aspect
of it, and make that
into a chunk, and
then another one,
so you’re focusing to do that.
And then in diffuse mode,
you reaching up above
and making the
connection randomly,
when you’re sleeping, out
for a walk, taking a shower,
all these kinds of things.
So they all are related, but
actually, that’s great advice.
If you try to learn it all at
once, it’s so overwhelming,
it’s like your little prefrontal
cortex is scrambling madly,
but it’s overwhelmed.
So you want to just
get a piece of it,
so you can draw
that up as a ribbon.
Very good question.
requires understanding.
So when there is a
chunk, that means
that there was an experience of
understanding that led to that?
BARBARA OAKLEY: Not necessarily.
You can learn a
word in a language,
and you can not know
what that word means.
And you can learn a lot
of words in a language,
but not know what that means.
But if you do know
what they mean,
it actually can make it
easier to remember that word,
and easier to chunk that word.
And easier to use those chunks,
to put together sentences.
So for the most
part, we always want
chunking to involve
understanding, as well.
But technically, no.
You don’t have to
have understanding.
It’s just that understanding
helps to kind of knit things
together so that you can
remember them more easily.
For example, if I’m trying to
learn the word duck as “pato”
in Spanish, if I’m
just going “pato,”
I’m trying to
remember that word,
I don’t have any understanding
of what it means,
it’s kind of harder to remember.
But if I know that “pato”
means duck, I can say,
what if I’m trying to remember
it by having a little “pot-o”
that my duck is floating
in, and that can help,
that understanding, help
serve as a bridge to get it
into my mind.
So that’s a really good
question, because people often
think, oh, you
build a chunk, it’s
automatic that
you understand it.
Not necessarily.
But it’s a very good thing
to have, for the most part.
AUDIENCE: I wanted
to ask– we’ve
mentioned that people
who’ve mastered one area
can find it easier to
learn another area,
because they’re related chunks.
on how close the area is.
If you learn Icelandic,
you’re probably
going to be able to
learn German more easily.
But it may help a
little bit with some
of the metacognitive
skills, as far as
when you’re learning
Chinese, but they’re
so very different that it’s
only those metacognitive sort
of things that might
help with learning.
And there’s still a little bit
of an aspect of fundamental
“how do you structure a
language” that I think
is common to all languages.

So it depends on how
close things are.
But what I think is fascinating
is that you never know.
That’s why it’s so
important to have
people coming from one field to
a very different field, right?
You’re a deep sea diver,
and you go into nursing.
And you actually can bring
some really good ideas.
And the best ideas
are often developed
by two different
types of people.
One is someone who’s
very young, so they
haven’t been sort
of indoctrinated
into “this is how you think.”
But the other is
outsiders, people
who are trained in a different
discipline, who come and take
an initial look and have fresh
eyes at what they’re seeing.
So, good questions.
more practical thing.
I’m curious about your
opinion, if you’re
familiar with the Everyday
Math curriculum which
a lot of schools are teaching
now, which, for example,
my kids take.
And for example,
when they teach math,
they emphasize
getting sort of almost
like a number theory feel.
Like they learn, like,
four different ways
to multiply instead of one,
you know, the way we learned.
And so for example,
my kids, they’re
incredibly confused by this.
I’m just wondering if
you’re familiar with it.
If you have– how
does it fit into this,
and if you think
that’s– have opinions.
different in different parts
of the country.
And so I’m out of Michigan.
We have different techniques.
It depends.
I think it depends on the kids.
For some kids,
it’s great to learn
all these different techniques.
For other kids, you
know, just get one method
down really well, and then
you can climb up from there.
My own personal opinion
is one of the best
math supplement programs is
simply Kumon Mathematics.
And I’m not a paid spokesperson
for Kumon Mathematics.
But what they do is they have
simple methods of practice
and repetition to
help build mastery
in your learning of mathematics.
And they don’t give you a
bunch of different methods.
They just make sure you
know how to multiply.
You know how to divide.
And you really know
how to do these things.
So I guess my gut sense,
and I haven’t really
encountered that
question before,
is I think I’d prefer to see
someone really learn it well
using one technique.
When you’re older, you
can see other ways.
But if you’ve got that one
way really good, you got it,
and you can move up.
But if you’re learning too
many, it can be quite confusing.
I suppose it would be
the equivalent of you’re
growing up learning
eight languages at once.
You know, some
kids can handle it.
But for a lot of kids, it
might be a little bit confusing
to have too much going on at
one time, especially about
one thing.
AUDIENCE: I have a
question around reading,
and not like math or
something, but if I’m
reading, say, a philosophy
book by Nietzsche or Heidegger,
for example, which
is 400 pages long.
And I’m a slow reader.
And I’m assuming I’m
a very focused reader,
because I do grasp and retain
what I have read pretty well.
But I’m incredibly slow.
So do have any methods to figure
out how to be a fast reader,
but at the same time,
be able to retain
and deeply grasp
what I’m reading?
short answer is no.
Research has lately shown that
techniques for speed reading
are actually– they’re
a little bit, it seems,
somewhat spurious.
To read anything difficult
more deeply simply takes time.
I always think, in
the back of my mind,
STEM disciplines– Science,
Technology, Engineering,
Math– is really difficult
for a lot of people.
But then there’s philosophy.
That’s, I think, one of the
hardest things in general
for people to really grasp.
It’s incredibly important,
but it’s difficult.
And I think just having a little
understanding and compassion
for yourself, that
you’re actually
tackling among humankind’s
most difficult topics.
And if it’s slow, well,
you’re doing fantastic.
Because I would be the same way.
And I think a lot of people
are really the same way.
There’s some probably super-fast
Maserati brain thinkers
who could buzz right
through that stuff.
But they would miss
things that you would see.
AUDIENCE: I’ve been wondering
how your techniques apply
more generally to kids.
And you briefly
touched, actually,
on a previous question, practice
and repetition, practice
and repetition.
But more concretely, how
do you get, actually,
kids interested
in mathematics, so
that they keep on practicing?
The way that we’ve
been teaching kids
is, it’s like,
let’s give them introduced
to the fun stuff.
We’re going have them
hands on, and we’re
going to have them
dropping eggs, and doing
all this exciting stuff.
And then they get to college,
and they hit calculus,
and it’s like the
death march, right?
They start dropping like flies.
Because they’re
not used to that.
Everything’s always
been fun, right?
So we don’t do that when we’re
teaching things like music.
We don’t do that when we’re
teaching foreign languages.
But students fall in
love with those subjects
because they can gain
the expertise– in part
through some drudging through
practice and repetition.
So I think part of
the reason that we
have so many kids in this
country fall off the bandwagon
is we try to make everything
really exciting and really fun.
And we forget the lessons
that language learners
and musicians, and
sports, people in sports,
dance instructors–
they all know
that practice and repetition
is part of gaining expertise.
And when we get that
incorporated back
into the curriculum–
it’s there,
but it’s not nearly as sound as
it is in many other countries.
Which is why I think we
see so many people coming
to this country with a love
and a mastery of learning
in science and in mathematics
that is not growing
organically, because we’re not
introducing kids in the United
States to some of
these ideas of also,
the supplemental importance
of practice and repetition.
So those are my thoughts.
We do do a little bit of
it, but really not enough.
Because for a long
time, sadly, there’s
been this feeling that too
much practice and repetition
in mathematics will
kill your creativity.
Instead of the reality,
which is every great expert
has to have practice
and repetition
with what they’re learning.
So those are my
thoughts on that.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
So understanding is important,
and context is important.
And speaking of that, so there
could be like top-down approach
and bottom-up approach.
So what do you think is better?
Is it better to
understand the big picture
and then try to study subject?
Or it’s better to
study the small chunks
and build this
understanding from–
or maybe we have to mix it?
got it exactly right.
You don’t want to be just doing
small things all the time.
And you don’t want to be
perched overhead all the time.
You want to be– it’s hard to
get what is the big picture
when you’re– you learn one
little chunk and you learn
another little chunk.
But you want to start piecing
that into the big picture
as much as you can.
And so you want to be kind
of going back and forth.
One of the techniques
that I didn’t talk about,
that’s very important,
is that of interleaving.
And a lot of times, when
you’re learning, for example,
some new technique
in calculus, you’ll
do 10 problems
pretty much the same,
in learning that
technique in calculus.
But you don’t want to do that.
You want to do one or two
problems using that technique.
Flip to another
section of the book.
Do that problem.
Kind of compare–
wait a minute, why
am I using this technique
here and that technique here?
Why are those different?
Flip back.
Do another one of
the first technique.
Then flip to a
different– we’re not
training people– we don’t
even have our books set up
to interleave.
And we need to start
doing that, because that’s
what actually– it’s
practice of repetition,
but mixed with interleaving,
that builds flexibility.
So those are my
thoughts on that.
Good question.
AUDIENCE: Like when I was
in high school and college
and taking math, I
was perfectly fine.
Like I did well, and
did well on the tests.
But my problem was
always trying to apply it
outside that
environment, like trying
to use it practically
or in everyday life,
or whatever it was that I
needed certain math skills.
I just could never do it.
And I was wondering if you
had any sort of technique
or strategy or ideas
about how there’s a way
to take math from the
school and sort of be
able to apply it
in regular life,
or just outside of school.
a very good question.
One of the things that
people do, they look at math
and they say, how am I
ever going to use this?
In fact, I remember
when I was called
into the principal’s
office in eighth grade,
because I wasn’t doing my math.
I was actually reading a book.
And so I remonstrated
with the principal,
saying that there was
no real use for it.
I would never use it.
And they gave up on
me, at that point.
But it’s kind of like this.
When you’re at
the gym and you’re
lifting a specific
type of weight,
are you ever going to go
into the outside world
and lift that kind of weight?
Of course not.
But you’re actually
using muscles
that you might use related
muscles when you’re lifting up
your luggage to get in and put
it in the airline compartment.
So what you’re doing when
you’re learning something
in math and science
is you’re developing
sort of neural pathways.
You may not use exactly that
one, but in surprising ways,
they can shape how you’re
thinking about things.
So an example is this.
They did a study, and
they found, you know,
there’s some kids who go
all the way through college.
And you can kind of take courses
that have almost no math,
really, involved.
You know, math for poets,
or i these kinds of courses.
And you go all the way through.
But people who have
this kind of background,
where they’ve had very little
exposure, when you control
for all aspects of what’s going
on that you can reasonably
control for, the ones who have
no real background in math
are far more likely to default
on their home mortgages.
So you know, think about that.
But it’s actually, you’re able
to think more intelligently.
Now, what about–
you’re really concerned
about the environment.
So someone comes up
and says, well, we’ve
got to have electric cars.
Sounds really good, right?
But if you’re trained, you’ve
got some kind of background,
you could go, yeah,
but wait a minute.
What about the
effect of batteries
on the environment, right?
Do they actually
make more pollution?
In fact, does that
transfer of energy
create more harm
for the environment
than a regular gasoline engine?
If you’re taught to think a
little bit more rationally
and carefully about
things, you can actually–
you’re using those
intellectual muscles in ways
that you haven’t
really– you don’t really
realize how important
that actually is.
So one way, though,
just reflecting,
just a little bit
of a different way,
because your
question’s very deep.
When you’re learning a language,
one of the things you do
is you’re learning,
you’re practicing.
And it can be really tough
to actually go and meet
somebody and talk with them,
who speaks that language.
But that real life experience is
what brings the language alive,
and what nourishes the
desire to learn it.
So I think finding ways–
when you’re walking around
and you’re thinking about
something you just learned
mathematically, look
around and try and bring it
into the environment you’re in.
And try to think about
it in those ways.
That’s such a great question.
Because it helps us be aware of
the richness of life around us.
And so I think trying to bring
some of these ideas you’re
learning into the life around
us is a brilliant thing to do,
and a great attitude to have.
So I thank you so very
much for having me here.
BARBARA OAKLEY: Fantastic talk.
Great answers.
AUDIENCE: And happy learning.
you so much, Barb.
Thank you.