Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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.