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  • I grew up moving all over the place.

  • By the time I hit 10th grade, I'd lived in 10 different places.

  • Math is extraordinarily sequential.

  • By the time I hit 3rd grade, I'd fallen off the math bandwagon.

  • Basically, I flunked my way

  • through elementary, middle, and high school math and science.

  • So it's a little strange looking back now

  • because today I am a professor of engineering

  • and I'm passionate about my job.

  • One day, one of my students found out about my past,

  • and he asked me, "How did you do it? How did you change your brain?"

  • And I thought, you know, "How did I do it?"

  • I mean, here I was, this little kid,

  • and I just loved language and culture,

  • and that's all I wanted to learn when I grew up,

  • but I didn't have the money to go to college,

  • so I enlisted in the army right out of high school

  • to learn a language.

  • You can see me there, looking very nervous,

  • about to throw a grenade.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I did learn a language.

  • I'd learned Russian,

  • and I ended up working out on Soviet trawlers, up on the Bering Sea,

  • as a Russian translator.

  • So, I just love adventure and getting new perspectives.

  • So I also ended up in Antarctica, at the South Pole Station.

  • That's where I ended up meeting my husband.

  • So I always say -

  • (Laughter)

  • I had to go to the end of the Earth to meet that man.

  • (Laughter)

  • But I begin to realize something, though.

  • I was doing all these adventures and seeing these new perspectives,

  • but somehow they were always external.

  • They weren't internal; I wasn't changing inside.

  • When I'd worked in the military,

  • I worked with all these West Point engineers,

  • and they had these powerful techniques for problem solving.

  • I thought, you know -

  • I'd look sometimes at what they were doing,

  • and they had these calculus and physics books,

  • and it looked like hieroglyphics to me.

  • But I thought, "What if I could get those ideas?"

  • What if I could learn that language?"

  • I mean, the world's evolving.

  • Language and culture are important,

  • but math, and science, and technology are important, too.

  • What if I could learn these new ideas

  • and add them to the ideas I already knew and loved?

  • So, when I got out of the military, at age 26,

  • I decided to try and change my brain.

  • It wasn't easy.

  • But if I knew then what I know now about how to learn,

  • I could have learned much more easily and much more effectively.

  • So, several years ago,

  • as I begin trying to answer

  • that student's question, "How did I change my brain?",

  • I begin reaching out to top professors from around the world,

  • people who not only had knowledge of their difficult areas of expertise,

  • but also who could teach effectively.

  • And I asked them.

  • I said, "How did you learn?

  • And how do you teach, so others could learn?"

  • What I found was the way they learned,

  • and the way they taught was often similar to the way I learned and I taught.

  • It was almost like this kind of shared fraternal handshake.

  • But we often didn't know why we did what we did.

  • So I begin researching neuroscience and cognitive psychology,

  • and reaching out to talk to top experts of those fields.

  • Here is what I found, the keys to learning effectively.

  • As we know, the brain is enormously complex.

  • But we can simplify its operation into two fundamentally different modes.

  • The first is just what I'll call the focus mode.

  • The focus mode is just like it sounds like:

  • you turn your attention to something and boom! It's on.

  • But the second mode is a little different.

  • It's a relaxed set of neural states that I'll call the diffuse mode.

  • It's a number of resting states.

  • So it seems that, when you're learning,

  • you're going back and forth between these two different modes.

  • How can we better understand these modes?

  • Through analogy.

  • What we're going to use is a pinball machine analogy.

  • You all know how pinballs work.

  • You just pull back on a plunger,

  • and the ball goes boinking out and bounces around on the rubber bumpers,

  • and that's how you get points.

  • What we're going to do is we're going to take this pinball

  • and we're going to put it right on your brain.

  • So, there it is.

  • There's the pinball machine on your brain.

  • If you look, this is the analogy for the focus mode.

  • When you're learning, you're often thinking tightly,

  • as you're focusing on something.

  • It involves thoughts you're somewhat familiar with,

  • perhaps historical patterns,

  • or you're familiar with the multiplication table.

  • So you think a thought, and it takes off, and moves along smoothly,

  • pretty much along the pathways that you've already laid.

  • But what if the thought you're thinking

  • is actually a new thought, a new concept, a new technique

  • that you've never thought of before?

  • Well, that's symbolized by this new pattern

  • towards the bottom of the pinball machine metaphor.

  • To get to this new place, I mean, at least sort of metaphorically speaking,

  • look at all the rubber bumpers that are in the way.

  • How can you even get there?

  • You need a different way of thinking, a new perspective in a sense,

  • and that's provided here by the diffuse mode.

  • Look at how far apart those rubber bumpers are

  • from one another.

  • When you think a thought, it takes off, and it can range very widely,

  • as you're attempting to come up with some new ideas.

  • So, you can't do that careful, focused thinking

  • that you can in the focus mode,

  • but you can, at least, get to the place you need to be in

  • to grapple with these new ideas.

  • The bottom line for all of us out of this is this:

  • when you're learning,

  • you want to go back and forth between these modes,

  • and if you find yourself, as you're focusing in on something,

  • trying to learn a new concept or solve a problem,

  • and you get stuck,

  • you want to turn your attention away from that problem

  • and allow the diffuse modes, those resting states,

  • to do their work in the background.

  • How can we actually use these ideas in real life?

  • If you look at this guy right here, he was Salvador Dali,

  • one of the most brilliant surrealist painters of the 20th century.

  • Dali was the very definition of a wild and crazy guy.

  • You can see him there.

  • He's got his pet, Ocelot Babu.

  • What Dali used to do when he was kind of stuck

  • as he was solving some problem related to his painting

  • was he'd sit down and he'd relax in a chair,

  • and he'd have keys in his hands.

  • He'd hold those keys, and he'd relax, kind of letting his brain noodling away.

  • Just as he'd relax so much that he'd fall asleep,

  • the keys would fall from his hands, the clatter would wake him up,

  • and off you go: he'd take those ideas

  • from the diffuse mode over to the focus mode,

  • where he could work with them,

  • refine them, and use them for his painting.

  • You might think, "That's great! It's good for an artist.

  • But I'm an engineer.

  • So how can I use these ideas?"

  • If you see this guy right here, he was Thomas Edison,

  • one of the most brilliant inventors in history.

  • What Edison used to like to do, at least according to legend,

  • he'd sit in a chair with ball bearings in his hand.

  • He'd relax away, kind of thinking about the problem, loosely,

  • that he was trying to solve related to his inventions, relaxing.

  • Just as he'd fall asleep,

  • the ball bearings would fall from his hands,

  • and off you go: he'd be woken up,

  • and he'd take those ideas from the diffuse mode

  • back into the focus mode.

  • He'd use them to refine and finish his inventions.

  • The bottom line for all of us out of this is this:

  • whenever you're sitting down

  • to solve a new problem or analyze a new idea,

  • even if millions of other people have thought the same thoughts,

  • or solved the same problems,

  • for you, it's just as creative

  • as it was for famous people like Dali and Edison,

  • and you want to use some of these creative approaches.

  • But you might say to me, "Yeah, but I've got a problem, though.

  • You know, I just love to procrastinate.

  • This back and forth stuff is great, but I don't have time.

  • I cram at the last minute. That's just me."

  • So, let's talk just a little bit about procrastination.

  • What seems to happen when you procrastinate is this:

  • you look at something you'd really rather not do,

  • and you actually feel a physical pain

  • in the part of your brain that analyzes pain.

  • So, there are two ways that you can handle this.

  • The first way is you can just kind of keep working a way through it.

  • And research has shown

  • that within a few minutes it actually will disappear.

  • But the second way is you just turn your attention away, and guess what?

  • You feel better, right, right away.

  • (Laughter)

  • So, you do this once, you do this twice; it's just not that big a deal.

  • But you do this very often, and it's actually like an addiction.

  • It can really cause problems in how you lead your life.

  • So, how can you handle it?

  • A very simple way: using the Pomodoro Technique.

  • The Pomodoro technique, as it turns out, all you need to do is you get a timer.

  • Any timer will do.

  • Then you just take it and set it for 25 minutes,

  • and make sure everything else is turned off

  • - so, no instant messengers, nothing like that -

  • and you work with focused attention for 25 minutes.

  • Anybody can do 25 minutes, virtually anyone.

  • When you're done, you do something fun;

  • just a little bit, a few minutes of relaxed fun.

  • What this seems to do is this:

  • you are enhancing, you're practicing in some sense

  • your ability to have focused attention,

  • and you're also practicing your ability to relax a little bit.

  • Now you understand that relaxation

  • is also an important part of the learning process;

  • there are things going on in the background.

  • The only thing is this: when you do the Pomodoro,

  • you want to make sure that you don't sit there

  • and say, "I'm going to do my entire homework set

  • in these 25 minutes." No.

  • You just sit and say, "I'm going to work with focused attention for 25 minutes",

  • and that's the key.

  • Students sometimes make the mistake

  • of thinking that some of their absolute best traits

  • are their worst traits.

  • What do I mean by this?

  • Let's take the idea of memory.

  • Let's say that you have a poor working memory.

  • You can't seem to hold things in mind very well.

  • You watch these other students

  • and they're able to grasp all these ideas and kind of manipulate them,

  • but you can't.

  • Well, what this means is: surprisingly, you are more creative.

  • Because you can't hold these ideas in mind so tightly,

  • other ideas are often creeping in.

  • If you have problems with the tension,

  • you're always kind of diverting off into some other idea, it's similar:

  • you are often more creative,

  • because these new ideas are slipping in instead.

  • There's another thing, and that's slow thinking.

  • Some students compare themselves to other students

  • and say, "You know, I'm really slow by comparison.

  • These other students, they are like race car drivers;

  • they go past me so fast."

  • But, think of yourself as a hiker.

  • Yes, a race car driver gets there much faster than you ever can,

  • but a hiker has a completely different experience.

  • A hiker can smell the pine air, they can reach out, touch the leaves,

  • they see the rabbit trails.

  • In many ways, your experiences are deeper and more profound,

  • and you don't jump to conclusions.

  • So if you are a slower thinker,

  • yes, you may have to work harder in order to grasp the materials,