Barbara Oakley


Jacob Taylor asks Barbara Oakley 5 Good Questions. Barbara has written several books on psychology and learning. I was more interested in some concepts from her book, A Mind for Numbers.

The book centers around how to excel at math or science, but really it’s a book about learning how we learn. There are a lot of useful techniques, here is a solid summary. She touches on several of these in this short interview, and some bits are transcribed below. Watch and listen to the full interview here.

Focused vs. Diffused Learning 3:58

I’ll use the metaphor or analogy of a net. So your brain has a bunch of connections in it. And when you’re operating in it, what I’ll call the focused mode. And that’s when you’ve turned it onto something and you’re focusing, it’s almost the equivalent of using a very tightly woven net.

The weave is very close, you have very small meshes. And when you think a thought, it’s moving along meshes that have been sort of tread before. Right, those meshes have been used before.

For example, if you’re doing multiplication and a multiplication problem, and you’re familiar with that, you’re moving on very familiar concentrated mental patterns.

But let’s say you have to learn something completely new, like division. And you’ve never met that before.

It turns out that the brain has a completely different way of thinking. You have the focused mode, but it has a much more relaxed way of looking at the world. I’ll call it the diffused mode.

But really what that is a bunch of really closely related neuro resting states. Probably the most important of those is the default mode network. And what happens, you can think of it sort of like analogy, is when you’re thinking in this mode, you have a big net.

The neuro patterns that you’re following are sweeping much more broadly. You can’t hone in and focus on something small and concentrated, but you can at least get to a new place in your brain. A new pattern more easily using this diffuse mode. Where you can later start to hone in and build a more focused mode or way of looking at it.

So when you’re learning something new or trying to figure out a new concept, it’s very important that you focus at first. But then when you feel yourself start to get frustrated and stuck, the more you think about it when you’re in that state, the more you’re kind of tightly boxing yourself into this little part of the net.

You need to get your attention completely off it. You can focus on something different or you can go for a walk, take a shower, take a nap. All sorts of things can activate these diffused resting states, which is actually what you need in order to start understanding these new ideas.

So when you’re learning something new, you want to be able to go back and forth between these two different modes. And people often don’t understand that.

They say, when I’m focusing is the only time I’m really learning something. And if I stop, I’m giving up. I must not be good. But actually that’s how your brain works.

You want to stop when you’re getting frustrated. And when you’re doing something else, you’re not conscious of it, but you’re doing something else, but your brain is actually working on that material. You’re making progress, you’re just not aware of it.


Routines for learning 8:35

I prefer a day that has some looseness in the structure. It’s important that you work away on something, but sometimes something will capture your attention and you’ll want to go beyond the minimal time dedicated to it. So I like to do that with my own routine.

Some people are very comfortable with a good structure. What I would say to them is make sure you’re doing something in that day that’s completely unexpected. Or that’s absolutely irrelevant to what you believe is important to be working on.

That’s something I’ve really made a point of doing throughout my life. I think I’ve benefitted from this. There are times in anyone’s life, even if they’re learning something or mastering a competency that’s really difficult.

For example, for me getting my doctorate in systems engineering. That’s not something where I could putz around and do it a couple hours a day. It really took focused attention for quite some time or a number of years.

But I would always even at the end of the day, you know what, I’m going to read a little bit of history. I’m going to read the National Enquirer. I’m going to do something that is completely unrelated to what I’m studying or supposed to be learning.

Somehow that even gave me freedom, so I can fall asleep more easily. It was like, oh ok, I’m relaxed now.

But I think it builds a mental flexibility that can be extremely valuable. Some really really smart people that I know, they can think really fast, but they’re utterly inflexible. If you present an idea that’s not their idea, even if it’s a better idea, and quite obviously a better idea - it’s like they’re a race care driver and they’re going down that path and you’ve just said turn sideways and they just can’t do it. They’re not used to it.

But some really smart people that practice more flexibility in their thinking, they’re more capable of doing it. And I’d think they all are.


Interleaving 11:27

There is something called interleaving in learning. And it’s coming more and more important.

For example, when you’re learning a new set of math techniques. If you’re working on a book in statistics, you might have a chapter, have a part at the end of the chapter with the techniques you’ve learned in that chapter for that section and then your professor might assign 10 problems of that type to kind of burn it into you.

Actually what that does is after you’ve done the first couple, you’re just mimicking yourself. So what you want to be doing in all of learning, which is never presented this way or very rarely at high schools or universities, is do a couple problems of one type and then find something that’s different. And see what the difference is.

And then interleave back to where you were. And by doing this, when you take a final in a class, that’s what you’re really seeing - an interleaving of all sorts of different things at once.

And that’s why people can often do well in a class, and flub on a final. They’re not used to teaching themselves to be flexible.

And I think it’s like that in life. If you set yourself up, so you’re studying one subject, but then you switch to something really dramatically different sometime during the day, I think that helps with the ability to quickly transition to one thought to another thought. That in turn, can help you combine really interesting thoughts in novel ways.


Good and bad study habits 24:50

Elmore Leonard did this 10 rules of writing. So I thought, how about 10 rules of studying?

Then I thought more, and said what about 10 rules of good studying?

And then 10 rules of bad studying?

I’ve got that up on my website now and it’s in the book. And there are a lot of ways to study horrifically. I’ve probably done them all.

One of the ways, for example, when you’re reading a book and you really want to understand it. The best way to do it, especially if it’s difficult, is look at that page and if you want to, annotate something on the margins because that helps you better neurology encode the key idea.

That’s what you’re trying to do, is pick out the key idea. And another good way is to look away, and see if you can recall the main ideas you just read.

So I just cheated and told you some good techniques. But I wanted to contrast that with what people normally do, which is you move the pen on the page and you underline or highlight.

And somehow this motion makes you think you’re moving it. And it’s not. In fact, excessive highlighting has been found to be very ineffective. Re-reading is very ineffective.

There is sort of a mantra amongst professors of doing concept maps where you pick a concept and map it and connect it with other things. Well guess what?

That’s not as effective as simply recalling the material as well. So those are bad ways to study.

Your best bet is to always to try to recall the main points. Often, we discount the importance of memorization. And memorization can be an important part of any expertise because you need to have information in your long term memory.

You never want to discount the importance of that’s a really important equation, I think I’m going to treat it like a poem and memorize it, so I can understand all the components more deeply. Why should we let the poets have all the fun with memorization?


The importance of sleep 27:40

Not getting enough sleep is a really common way to study very badly. Because sleep of course is when new synaptic connections are growing. If you study, then sleep, you actually wake up smarter and you’ve got more connections.

The more you can block off, so you do a study session during the day, and then sleep, and then another short study session and sleep, you’re actually building a really nice infrastructure. But if you block it all at the end, your brain can only grow so many new synaptic connections. So you’re just kind of creating a puddle.


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