Transcriber: Tijana MihajlovićReviewer: Mile Živković I grew up moving all over the place.
By the time I'd hit 10th grade, I'd lived in 10 different places.
Math is extraordinarily sequential.
By the time I'd 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 todayI am a professor of engineering and I'm passionate about my job.
One day, one of my studentsfound 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 wantedto learn when I grew up, but I didn't have the moneyto go to college, so I enlisted in the armyright 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 outon Soviet trawlers, up on the Bering Sea, as a Russian translator.
So, I just love adventureand getting new perspectives.
So I also ended up in Antarctica, at the South Pole Station.
That's where I ended upmeeting my husband.
So I always say – (Laughter) I had to go to the end of the Earthto meet that man.
(Laughter) But I begin to realize something, though.
I was doing all these adventuresand 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 theseWest Point engineers, and they had these powerful techniquesfor problem solving.
I thought, you know – I'd look sometimesat what they were doing, and they had these calculusand physics books, and it looked like hieroglyphics to me.
But I thought, “What if Icould 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 technologyare important, too.
What if I could learn these new ideas and add them to the ideasI already knew and loved? So, when I got outof 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 nowabout how to learn, I could have learned much more easilyand 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 professorsfrom around the world, people who not only had knowledgeof 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 similarto the way I learned and I taught.
It was almost like this kindof shared fraternal handshake.
But we often didn't knowwhy we did what we did.
So I begin researching neuroscienceand cognitive psychology, and reaching out to talkto top experts of those fields.
Here is what I found, the keys to learning effectively.
As we know, the brainis enormously complex.
But we can simplify its operationinto two fundamentally different modes.
The first is just what I'll callthe focus mode.
The focus modeis just like it sounds like: you turn your attention to somethingand boom! It's on.
But the second mode is a little different.
It's a relaxed set of neural statesthat 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 forthbetween these two different modes.
How can we better understand these modes? Through analogy.
What we're going to useis a pinball machine analogy.
You all know how pinballs work.
You just pull back on a plunger, and the ball goes boinking outand bounces around on the rubber bumpers, and that's how you get points.
What we're going to do iswe're going to take this pinball and we're going to put itright on your brain.
So, there it is.
There's the pinball machine on your brain.
If you look, this is the analogyfor the focus mode.
When you're learning, you're often thinking tightly, as you're focusing on something.
It involves thoughtsyou're somewhat familiar with, perhaps historical patterns, or you're familiarwith the multiplication table.
So you think a thought, and it takes off, and moves along smoothly, pretty much along the pathwaysthat 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 bottomof the pinball machine metaphor.
To get to this new place, I mean, at least sort of metaphorically speaking, look at all the rubber bumpersthat 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 hereby the diffuse mode.
Look at how far apartthose rubber bumpers are from one another.
When you think a thought, it takes off, and it can range very widely, as you're attemptingto 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 usout of this is this: when you're learning, you want to go back and forthbetween these modes, and if you find yourself, as you're focusing in on something, trying to learn a new conceptor solve a problem, and you get stuck, you want to turn your attentionaway from that problem and allow the diffuse modes, those resting states, to do their work in the background.
How can we actually usethese ideas in real life? If you look at this guy right here, he was Salvador Dali, one of the most brilliantsurrealist painters of the 20th century.
Dali was the very definitionof a wild and crazy guy.
You can see him there.
He's got his pet, Ocelot Babu.
What Dali used to dowhen he was kind of stuck as he was solving some problemrelated to his painting was he'd sit downand 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 muchthat 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 modeover to the focus mode, where he could work with them, refine them, and use themfor 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 brilliantinventors in history.
What Edison used to like to do, at least according to legend, he'd sit in a chairwith ball bearings in his hand.
He'd relax away, kind of thinkingabout the problem, loosely, that he was trying to solverelated to his inventions, relaxing.
Just as he'd fall asleep, the ball bearingswould fall from his hands, and off you go: he'd be woken up, and he'd take those ideasfrom the diffuse mode back into the focus mode.
He'd use them to refineand finish his inventions.
The bottom line for all of usout of this is this: whenever you're sitting down to solve a new problemor analyze a new idea, even if millions of other peoplehave thought the same thoughts, or solved the same problems, for you, it's just as creative as it was for famous peoplelike Dali and Edison, and you want to usesome 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 bitabout procrastination.
What seems to happenwhen you procrastinate is this: you look at somethingyou'd really rather not do, and you actually feel a physical pain in the part of your brainthat analyzes pain.
So, there are two waysthat you can handle this.
The first way is you can justkind of keep working a way through it.
And research has shown that within a few minutesit actually will disappear.
But the second way is you just turnyour 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 problemsin 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 itand set it for 25 minutes, and make sureeverything else is turned off – so, no instant messengers, nothing like that – and you work with focusedattention 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 practicingyour ability to relax a little bit.
Now you understand that relaxation is also an important partof the learning process; there are things going onin the background.
The only thing is this:when you do the Pomodoro, you want to make surethat you don't sit there and say, “I'm going to domy entire homework set in these 25 minutes.
You just sit and say, “I'm going to workwith focused attention for 25 minutes”, and that's the key.
Students sometimes make the mistake of thinking that someof 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 havea poor working memory.
You can't seem to hold thingsin mind very well.
You watch these other students and they're able to grasp all these ideasand kind of manipulate them, but you can't.
Well, what this means is:surprisingly, you are more creative.
Because you can't holdthese ideas in mind so tightly, other ideas are often creeping in.
If you have problems with the tension, you're always kind of diverting offinto some other idea, it's similar: you are often more creative, because these new ideasare slipping in instead.
There's another thing, and that's slow thinking.
Some students comparethemselves 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 theremuch faster than you ever can, but a hiker has a completelydifferent experience.
A hiker can smell the pine air, they can reach out, touch the leaves, they see the rabbit trails.
In many ways, your experiencesare deeper and more profound, and you don't jump to conclusions.
So if you are a slower thinker, yes, you may have to work harderin order to grasp the materials, but the trade-offs in many casesare well worth it; you gain solid masteryof what you're studying.
So, there is something called”illusions of competence in learning”.
What this meansis you can study all day long and you can be spinning your wheels because you're not usingeffective study techniques.
There is such a thing as test anxiety, but in many cases, surprisingly many, it arises because you've just comeface to face with the scary bear, (Laughter) and that is that you have just learnedthat you are not a master of the material.
Researchers, with bothcritters and people, are finding powerful insightsinto how we can learn most effectively.
One of those waysis simply through exercise.
Exercise within a matter of a few days can increase our abilityto both learn and to remember, and researchers are beginning to understand the neurophysiological pathwaysthat allow this to occur.
Tests are the best.
Test yourself all the time.
Give yourself little mini tests.
Make flash cards, even in math and science, mix them up, study themin different places, and this brings me to homework.
When you do a homework problem, never just work at once and put it away.
Would you ever sing a song onceand think you knew that song? No.
Test yourself, work that homework problemseveral times over several days until the solution flowslike a song from your mind.
When you're looking at a page as you're trying to learnsomething in a book, people's tendency is to highlight, right? There's something about the motionof the pen on a page that makes you thinkthat it's actually going into your brain, but it often isn't.
Often times, people will just reread, but that too is simplyspinning your wheels.
The most effective techniqueis simply to look at a page, look away, and see what you can recall.
Doing this, as it seems, helps build profound neural hooks that help enhance yourunderstanding of the material.
And finally, don't be fooledby the erroneous idea that understanding alone is enoughto build the mastery of the material.
Understanding is truly important, but only when combinedwith practice and repetition in a variety of circumstances can you truly gain masteryover what you're learning.
So, in closing, I would like to say that learning how to learn is the most powerful toolyou can ever grasp.
Don't just follow your passions; broaden your passions, and your lifewill be enriched beyond measure.