Clickbait: bad memory; a good thing!

Once I thought my list of science underdogs was finished, another one pops up. Meet Barbara Oakley, professor of engineering.

“I fell off the math bandwagon and flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. Now I’m a professor of engineering.” –Barbara Oakley

I’m excited to say that a ‘you-can-grow-your-brain thinking’ is gaining momentum. The growth mindset, neuroplasticity, you can learn anything. Whatever you call it. It looks like the way we look at intelligence is slowly making a turn for the better. I hope it will end up being a copernican revolution of education. In the following talk, Barbara explains how to exploit different modes of the brain, tips on how to tackle procrastination, etc., basically the key ideas related to improved learning.

Bad or slow memory is or can be a good thing!

“This can be a very positive attribute. Research has shown, if you have a poor working memory you have much more potential for being creative because other information is constantly slipping in. “Oooh shiny!” You’ll have to work harder than some other people, but the tradeoff is that you’ll be more creative.”

Barbara follows with two example scientists. One being a neuroscientists and the other a mathematician.

“Ramón y Cajal was not a genius and said so himself. Part of what he did was he worked hard and was persistent. But he said, these people with racecar brains, which he was not—often race along and they jump to conclusions that he didn’t miss. He would see them, and he was more flexible in his thinking. If he’d see a mistake he would go: “Wait a minute?” Whereas the racecar driver is so used to being right and being fast that they’re much less able to be persistent and to flexibly change in the light of contradictory data.”

“So if you have a slow brain, think of it like this. There’s the person with the racecar brain. Great. But you’re the hiker, and your experience is completely different. You walk along. You can see the little rabbit trails that they’ve missed. You can reach out and touch the pine needles. You can smell the pine forest. All of this is missed by the race car driver. So your way of thinking can be exceptionally valuable as well.”

Maryam Mirzakhani was called a too slow of a thinker to achieve anything in mathematics by her teacher. She eventually won the fields medal and is one of the greatest mathematicians alive.

If you’re still reading, you’ll want to see this.

If you don’t watch it there are two more things—among many—I want you to take away. All these underdog, late bloomer stories are very motivating and inspiring, but it’s not all fun and games. It’s easy to fall for the trap of thinking that you’ll eventually get it without too much of a hassle. No. It will still be very hard. We mustn’t forget that learning isn’t always pleasurable.

“Math tends to be thought in a way that is always fun and exciting and kids forget practise and repetition is key. That’s partly the reason so many kids fall off the math bandwagon. We try to make everything really exciting and really fun. And we forget the lessons that language learners, and musicians, and people sports, dance instructors—they all know that practise and repetition is part of gaining expertise.
For a long time, sadly, there’s been this feeling that too much practice and repetition in mathematics will kill your creativity. Instead, the reality which is every great expert has to have practise and repetition with what they’re learning.”

Lastly, passion is another term that can make people think things should come easily.

“We’re often told, follow your passion. That is the key to everything. Just follow your passion, and your life will really be a better place for it. We’re told that. But passion develops about what you are really good at. And some things take much longer to get good at. So don’t just follow your passions. Broaden your passions and your lives will be greatly enriched.”

I hope this opens up some new perspectives.

PS I’ve found the header image here. Haven’t read it yet, but it might be interesting.



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