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  • MALE SPEAKER: We have a very, very special guest with us

  • today.

  • 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

  • personally.

  • 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.

  • [APPLAUSE]

  • BARBARA OAKLEY: It's such 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.

  • (IN DEEP VOICE) "Hello.

  • 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 to ratemyprofessors.com.

  • 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,

  • Technology, 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

  • together.

  • 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.