Speaker 0 00:00:00 Hello everyone. And welcome to the 116th episode of the ATLA society asks. My name is Jennifer Anju Grossman. You can call me JAG. I'm the CEO of the ATLA society. We are the leading non-profit introducing young people to the ideas of Iran in fun, creative ways, like our graphic novels, animated videos, and the like. So today we are joined by professor Barbara Oakley. Before I even start to introduce our guest, I want to remind all of you that our watching us, whether on zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube, you can, uh, use the comment section to start typing in your questions. Please keep 'em short and we'll get to as many of them as we can. Now. Uh, professor Barbara Oakley is, uh, professor of engineering at Oakland university whose work in education and cognition has won widespread recognition and numerous national teaching awards.
Speaker 0 00:01:08 She's the co-creator of the world's most popular online course learning how to learn powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Uh, and she's also, uh, the author of several books on cognition, such as uncommon sense, teaching and mind shift breaking through obstacles, to learning and, and discover your hidden potential. Now, uh, she's also authored other books with insights, into ethics, such as pathological altruism and evil genes. Her rather distinguished career, uh, belies a life of adventure in which she has worked as a translator on Soviet trollers or radio operator at the south pole station in Antarctica, uh, a teacher in China and an army officer in Germany. Barbara, thanks again for joining us.
Speaker 1 00:02:07 Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Speaker 0 00:02:12 Um, so before diving into your academic work, I can't pass up learning a bit about your early biography, uh, which as I was mentioning, sounds a bit like a character out of a, a SP novel, uh, more than a, you know, evolving budding academics. So we I'd love if just to ground us, you'd share a little bit about your origin story.
Speaker 1 00:02:37 Oh, so I grew up moving all over the place. Uh, we started moving when I was about five years old and um, by the time I was 15, we'd lived in 10 more different places. And it was just because my father was in the military. And unlike you, I've always wished that I, uh, also had overseas travel under my belt as a youngster. I think it would've broadened my thinking even more, but I do have to say that that even if you are moving as I was, uh, within the states, as you move from place to place, you find that each group has a different way of looking at things, thinking about things. Uh, they, they define things differently and they have different perspectives. So if one thing that can happen when you move is if you're, if you're not a flamboyant extrovert and I was not, uh, uh, you can find yourself becoming a little bit more introverted as you continue to move.
Speaker 1 00:03:49 And part of that is just that as you reach your teenage years, you become a little bit more, um, well teens can be very unforgiving for those who are not already in their in group. So I think that was a blessing and disguise for me in that. Um, I became more used to being the person who's not within the in group. And, uh, and, and it actually can feel a little funny to be an outsider. It, it feels uncomfortable and indeed people don't like not thinking along the lines of other people, I in a, just all sort of way, that's why people join fellowships and, uh, organizations, uh, with kindred spirits. But if you get used to sometimes not being going with the flow of how everybody else is thinking, it can actually be conducive for more objective types of thinking. And so I think that that's a bit of my origin story there about, uh, why I, I think that objective or attempts to approach objectivity in your thinking, uh, are worthwhile.
Speaker 0 00:05:16 Yeah. And, uh, now that you're articulating that I, I can relate because I was born in India and, uh, didn't move around quite as much as you, but had early experiences with, um, students that just, I don't know something about me triggered them and, uh, and they would bully me and I had to get turn inward and rely on inner resources. Um, but I was, I was definitely different. I was, I was kind of getting this friction because of my differences, but I hadn't looked at it through a lens of gratitude as you've just shared to say, well, you know, that helped me build this resilience of representing a philosophy that is a different way of thinking. Um, and, and, uh, and even within the philosophy or within objectiveism being willing to try new things and do things differently, even though, uh, other people might not like it, which is fine by me now, all of this moving around that you did, um, I take it, it also had an impact on your ability to learn, um, specifically math and that sort of laid the groundwork, uh, for, for the work that you would later pioneer.
Speaker 0 00:06:38 Could you tell us a bit about that?
Speaker 1 00:06:40 Sure. So when I was seven years old, I moved from Texas to Massachusetts and, uh, it was rural Texas and it was not far from MIT in Massachusetts and no surprise. They were quite a bit ahead of where we were when it comes to math. Uh, you know, as opposed to where I had been down in Texas. So I struggled, I mean, it, we're talking about multiplication tables here, so it wasn't like advanced math or anything like that, but I just got it in mind that clearly math wasn't my subject. I was a language oriented person. And so I, I was a bit obstinate. And so I just labeled myself as bad at math. And I flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school, math and science. And it, it wasn't that I took, I don't think I took pride. I wish I had been able to do math, but I just sort of viewed myself as not a math person and then enlisted in the army, uh, learned a language at the defense language Institute at the age of 26, I went to get out of the military and found that my colleagues were easily able to get jobs because they were west point engineers.
Speaker 1 00:08:07 And me with my degree in slot languages and literature, I, you know, I mean, recruiters were not pounding on at my door. So I, uh, but I, I thought, you know, aren't I supposed to be open to new ideas and perspectives. Why don't I see if maybe I can actually change my brain and learn in math and science. So at age 26, I started with the lowest possible level of, um, of math at the university, which was remedial high school algebra. And I went from, you know, from the military into, uh, starting to try and become an engineer and surprise. I'm now a distinguished professor of engineering. And, um, it's, but the thing is, if you, if you start slowly, if you are humble about your, your abilities, which was easy for me to do, uh, because I had no real abilities, um, it, it, it was very possible to change my brain by using some of the techniques that had been taught to me, uh, as far as learning a language effectively and efficiently, these involved retrieval practice interleaving, uh, um, spaced repetition, many of the ideas we now know today to be excellent methods for, for learning, particularly not only in language, but in the science, technology, engineering and math.
Speaker 1 00:09:48 So that's really why I'm here. And what's funny is, um, that the education, some in the educational establishment have kind of taken under their advisement, that many of these ideas involving retrieval practice and so forth are antithetical to good learning, which is kind of, uh, that's part of, I think, why we have such a tremendous problem today. It we're teaching in conventional, um, K-12 education, sometimes using methods that are antithetical to good learning.
Speaker 0 00:10:28 Well, we're gonna get into that a little bit later on. Um, but I thought it was very interesting of course, while you're most famous for your work in cognition, uh, your investigations have also versed into the areas of ethics and psychology, which are of particular interest to our audience here at the out society. Uh, you and several colleagues edited a book called pathological altruism, which explores some negative aspects of altruism, um, when, you know, taken to extreme now in terms of definitions, uh, while altruism is often conflated with benevolence in objectiveism particularly the open objectiveist approach that we embrace here at the ATLA society, we use August K uh, definition of altruism as other ism, which elevates, uh, self-sacrifice as an ideal, but we actually have a, a positive view of benevolence, um, and see it as the POS having possibilities of an entrepreneurial and self, uh, self-interested value. So, um, how do you approach, uh, the concept of altruism and what have your, you and your colleagues observed in terms
Speaker 1 00:11:52 Of possible negative aspects? I think we, that, um, we are fairly well aligned in the idea that benevolence or altruism can have good and bad characteristics. I think it's important to be informed by a new field that's been developing over the last decade or so truly been exploding is natural language processing. And this is, it's a, um, it's a, a blend of linguistics and computer science. It's an artificial intelligence. And it, it, what it does is it goes in and it analyzes millions of pieces of text. So the thing is the Atlas society is very, uh, good in taking under advisement, their definition of altruism, but that's just one definition, and it's not a definition that has been enforced onto all of society. Um, and in fact, if you look, if you use natural language processing and you use one of the, uh, the largest, um, AI machines out there to ask it what its definition of altruism is, it says that it's the quality or state of being altruistic, unselfish concern for, or devotion to the welfare of others.
Speaker 1 00:13:30 So that's pretty much the definition. I mean, one can always say, oh, you should have gone back and you should have used someone's definition from the 18 hundreds. But I think it's quite reasonable to PO that one could use a definition that is the standard one that's used today. And the standard oh one that's used today for benevolence is the quality of well-meaning, uh, or kindness. So you can see that, uh, those two words are really quite overlapping, but if you, if you look even deeper than what the processing of millions of words of text tells you and use, instead, look at what the brain is doing when it has a definition, each person has hundreds of thousands of synaptic connections that allow them to form that definition in somewhat of an analogous way to how AI has formed those definitions. So the definitions are somewhat amorphous. They always will be. And, but as close as we can get to those hundreds of thousands of synaptic connections that form an individuals or the billions of synaptic connections, that form many individuals, average definitions of those terms. Um, I, I think getting, getting
Speaker 0 00:15:00 That, leaving aside, you know, the semantic differences between how we might view the term, I wanna get to the meat of, of the book. And, and what did you find as, um, because I think this was quite a, a revolutionary book, uh, that, that no one, you know, had, had really tackled this subject. And, and, uh, so what were some of your, your findings?
Speaker 1 00:15:27 Oh, gosh, I think they're the same findings that you have observed, which is that you can have really good intentions. And unless you're really thinking objectively about what your, uh, good intentions or Osten good intentions are doing, you may actually be, um, doing harm to people. And I don't think that's a surprise. I think it's, you know, it's basically the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think what objectiveism does, is it really, well, let me just back up one step and say that, um, oftentimes people, so prize doing good to other people that they refuse to look objectively at, whether they are actually helping other people, it's their inter they so want to feel good about themselves and what they're doing, that they just won't look at it. And I think that was one of the, one of the points that we were making in our book.
Speaker 1 00:16:37 Um, and I, and I think it's a very important point. Is it a point that is, um, not made anywhere else? No, I think it's, it's been made in other places, but you would be shocked pretty in academic. Well, maybe you wouldn't be shocked, uh, in academic circles. People really don't want to ever hear that the idea of doing good for other people might have negative consequences. They just don't want that to be known or, or thought about. And so that's, I think it's starting to break through now though. I think people are beginning to acknowledge that, um, altruism or attempts to help others can come with, uh, a flip downside. And that's why we're seeing, you know, these efforts towards, um, what effective altruism. I, I, I have to say I probably chose pathological altruism just because it had a little bit of shock value, uh, particularly at that time.
Speaker 0 00:17:50 Yeah. Well, it, um, it, it definitely, uh, caught, caught our attention. Um, now as mentioned in the introduction, uh, you also wrote a rather unusual book, entitled evil jeans, why Rofe Hitler rose and Ron failed. And my sister stole my mother's boyfriend. Um, I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you came up with that title, the inspiration, uh, for the book, but essentially what I took away was that you're applying the latest findings neuroscience, um, to both historical and personal cases of malignant personalities, uh, and even sadistic behavior. It seems to have some, um, program genetic genetic basis suggesting that some people actually might be born bad to, to some degree. So, uh, tell us a little bit about the inspiration, uh, on the book and some of your findings.
Speaker 1 00:18:51 Oh, so I, I, my Bo my sister really did steal my mother's boyfriend and, and she did a lot more besides that. And I remember thinking, you know, I'm a professor of engineering. Now I should be able to look at the literature and see why mean people do what they do, and not in the sense of mean person. Who's like, you know, uh, Charles Manson and a psychopathic killer, but just someone who can be really nice and sometimes first several years, and then flip on you and stab you in the back with ease as probably a lot of people have experienced, uh, in the workplace. It doesn't need to happen very often for it to have a profound effect on you. But I thought, you know, I'm a professor. I should be able to look up what psychology says about these things. I wanna see what the science is.
Speaker 1 00:19:49 What, what does science say about these kinds of mean people, but you can't go to pub me and like type in mean and, and, and get a bunch of scientific literature out of that. So I fi I had to kind of poke around a bit, and I finally found this one term that psychologists seem to term, seem to use called malignant narcissism. And it seemed to be just the ticket. Right. And I, I, so I looked it up and there's, there were thousands of psychology papers at that time on this topic. So I went to see what the actual scientific literature, what kind of imaging neural imaging, or what have you that was really scientifically grounded. And there, there was zero. I mean, there were zero citations. It was all kind of a circle of citations where everybody was citing everybody else, but it had no real firm grounding in reality in objective scientific literature.
Speaker 1 00:21:00 And that's when, uh, I thought, gosh, you know, uh, there's no, there, there in psychology. And, and I begin to find it there's, don't get me wrong. There's some fantastic research. That's come out of psychology and sociology, but there's also, um, there's these gaps and people who are trained in those discipline, they, they simply can't see the gaps. So that's why I think my book got a, got a really nice blurb from Steven Pinker and other psychologists and psychiatrists, cuz it really point began pointing to some of those gaps. So I, I started looking into this, you know, I researched this and then someone asked me when I was speaking. Um, well, you know, all Germans, weren't bad. I mean, it's not like they, you know, had all had mal intentions or something like that. How, how come all these Germans followed Hitler? And I thought about that and I thought, you know, a lot of times, the way these pathological personalities can come to the fore is by simply appealing to people's best characteristics. And that indeed is what Hitler did. So, um, so that started me on the train of, uh, researching pathologies of altruism.
Speaker 0 00:22:33 Fascinating. Now I see that we've got some questions that are coming in from the audience, uh, and I have many, many more of my own. Um, but before I turned audience questions start peppering them into our discussion. Um, you wrote a fascinating blog about 14 years ago, about I Rand, um, objectiveism and Atlas drug in which you argue to understand Rand's philosophy, how it was created and how some of its seeming flaws actually provide its strongest merits. You said, I think it's important to understand not only the communist system that originally shaped Rand's thinking, but also certain aspects of Rand's unusual personality. Uh, so as you might imagine, our audience is, would be highly interested in your thoughts on this. Um, as someone who, uh, is not unfriendly to, objectiveism certainly a fan of objectivity, uh, but also someone who's steeped in cognitive psychology. So perhaps you might share, uh, your insights, um, in particular you wrote that, uh, without a certain quote inflexibility and dogmatic conviction that she was right. Rand could never have been so assertive in standing up to the many who disagreed with her.
Speaker 1 00:24:02 So part of my coming at all of this is simply having worked for the Soviets as a Russian translator. I spent about a year altogether, um, working, you know, in communist environment. So I, I have a, a fair sense of what communism was all about and part of it's deepest, uh, flaw to me or one of its design attributes. It's probably intentional. Um, but I see as deeply pernicious is that it really can make people afraid. Um, it, it can terrify people because you say the wrong thing and your, your goose is cooked. Uh, you can be sent to the camps if you're lucky or simply tortured did death. So, um, in an invi it's hard, people will sometimes say, well, why didn't you speak up? You should have spoken up, you know, speaking of people at that time, you'd have to be crazy to do that.
Speaker 1 00:25:09 I mean, you really, you just don't know unless you're in the exact right circumstance, somebody over hears you and you know, you're, you're hauled off and you're dead. And it's really hard to, it's hard for Americans to understand that. And so it's hard to understand how crazy iron Rand had to be in order to give that kind of criticism. And I mean, she, wasn't crazy enough to stay in the Soviet union to give this kind of criticism, but, uh, for her to even think these things and to flee, uh, it was the mark of a very unusual mind and an unusual thinker. Now, part of what happens with malignant narcissism, but, or malignant, it is simply that narcissism aspect, uh, and narcissism is actually the, one of the most strongly heritable of all personality straight traits. And so narcissism is often found in borderline personality disorder.
Speaker 1 00:26:22 And it's pretty clear looking at the evidence. I mean, looking objectively at the evidence that, that Rand had some very strong symptoms that worsened as she aged, uh, of, uh, borderline personality disorder, again, of which narcissism can play a role. The thing about narcissism is you always feel that the best of all possible causes is yourself. <laugh>. So you're always being altruistic when you do something that helps yourself. Right. You're being really good. And, um, and I think that that, um, kind of played a role in Rand's, um, desire to cock hold her husband and, you know, go to bed with someone who was far younger and convince everyone using that borderline charisma, that this was actually a okay with everyone. Uh, um, it's as one of her former friends, uh, I think it was Edith Efron had said, um, you know, it's simply impossible to convey how crazy she was, but again, it was that inability to, to take in others' reactions that did allow her to, um, to, to think differently
Speaker 0 00:27:54 And
Speaker 1 00:27:54 To see the problems of communism
Speaker 0 00:27:57 Yeah. To persist. Um, you know, I, I think there are a lot of, uh, different takes on Iran's, uh, behavior. And certainly a lot of, uh, the biographical evidence also, I think does point to a certain generosity and, um, a curiosity that she had. Uh, but, um, I always think that sometimes our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses. And I would think about iron Rand, you know, as having this ability, almost like walking a tight rope with over shark infested waters, you know, that, that she had to come to America and she had this message to impart. And she, you know, it was a time when communism was being glamorized, uh, in the United States, in intellectual circles. And so, you know, her writing with the warning to the world was not too welcome, but in order to stay on that path and, and do that, she had to turn kind of turn, tune out, um, these, uh, the, the opposition.
Speaker 0 00:29:19 But of course, uh, you know, if you're not getting feedback right from others, um, if you're not open to, to well-meaning friends or those around you, that might say, oh, you know, there's a misstep ahead then, um, then you're, you're up for a tumble. So, um, yeah. So I'm gonna jump in and grab some of these audience questions that we have here, uh, from Instagram, my modern GA asks, what role do you think language plays in setting a person's mind to be more predisposed towards collectivism or individualism? He mentions German has a lot of words about the group about VO while English focuses more on the eye. So
Speaker 0 00:30:12 Is there a sense that just the, the, you know, I mean, another example that I can think of is when we used to talk about people who were living on the streets, we, we used to have a lot of different adjectives, you know, they were bums or panhandler, or, you know, um, layabouts or Vance, and now it's, there's one word it's homeless. And I, I think that by having this one politically correct term, it makes us think in terms of, oh, homeless. So it's a housing problem, as opposed to being open, to seeing what other kinds of dynamics may be at play. So the question is about whether or not, um, the, the language, you know, that is, is the common language of a society. Uh, maybe it's chicken before the egg, maybe a culture that is more predisposed towards tribalism or collectivism naturally will come up with more, uh, words to describe that if it's not a priority for the culture, rather than the words determining what the culture is.
Speaker 1 00:31:26 So there's a, an interesting recent research paper that shows that, um, when collective approaches are prioritized, that that truth becomes less important than what everybody else's important, uh, opinions are. So I think that language clearly flavors how we think about things, but I think much more important is that cultures can change language itself, can change. Um, for example, um, did you watch that show, the Queens gambit
Speaker 0 00:32:11 About I did loved it.
Speaker 1 00:32:14 Did you notice that at the very end, the sort of the final point of the show was that they had a collective group that got together and backed her up, and that's why she won. And I think it's, um, so, you know, as the chess champion, it wasn't her as the individual so much as the collective group that allowed her to win. So I think it's many small pieces like this, uh, within a society of where people are attempting to shape and reshape public opinion about the importance of the individual versus that of the group. Um, in education, for example, there's been a, an enormous push over the last few decades for collaborative learning. It's been ver I have watched the evolution from 30 years ago in engineering. It was very individualistic as far as how people learned. And now the idea is everything should be done in groups.
Speaker 1 00:33:30 Um, this is really, uh, how you should be teaching engineering, uh, using group approaches. And I think it's helping to change the culture for good or for ill. Um, one thing to be aware of is an enormous nature study of millions of patents papers and so forth found that paradigm shifts occur due to the work of one, two, or at most three people, but never larger groups. That was always, uh, that's just sort of constructing things, building large projects. So I, I think there is an, an enormous and important place for individualism and individual approaches and for us to recognize that even in our teaching and, um, and that has been changing over these last few years, it's quite interest.
Speaker 0 00:34:30 Well, speaking of teaching, let's turn to your work in cognition. Uh, you have researched and studied a lot of top professors as rated by students. What are some of the skills or traits that make for an outstanding teacher?
Speaker 1 00:34:46 Oh gosh, that is a really hard one to answer because you can be an outstanding teacher, um, for different reasons. Like I've known people who are just enormous egotists and they can get up in front of a crowd and, oh my gosh, they're just hysterical to watch. And they're, they're entertaining and they teach well and so forth. And then there are people like me who there, you know, I'm kind of shy. And so my whole idea is to convey the ideas so I can run away as quickly as possible. <laugh> so, but I, I both, you know, I mean, they're completely different sort of personality styles. I, I think underneath it all is, um, that you, uh, that you respond to your students, but I'd like to say that's always the case, but actually some really, you know, egotistical professors who don't really respond to their students, they're still, they're great to watch and they're really good professors. So, you know, it's, it's hard to call that one.
Speaker 0 00:35:58 Okay. Um, now in, uh, your book, you you've talked about these two modes of thinking also in your online course focused and diffuse. Uh, how did innovators like tho those, you described salvager Dolly at Thomas EVI Edison leverage both in thinking through technical problems, um, these two types of, of thinking and how can we leverage them in learning new things?
Speaker 1 00:36:29 Oh gosh. Okay. So I'm gonna cover this like super fast, because actually I wanna go, you're bringing up another,
Speaker 0 00:36:38 Just wanna remind people that if you want to, uh, explore them at more length, I highly recommend mind shift. We'll put the link to ordering the book, um, in, in the chat and, uh, very, very, uh, excellent job on the narration professor Oakley as well. Oh, the audio.
Speaker 1 00:36:58 Thank you. So those two different aspects are, uh, what psychologists called task positive versus task negative networks task negative is default mode network. One is a tightly focused, small area of the brain, you know, sort of thinking, uh, you know, putting it in, uh, rough heuristic. And the other is a much broader network in the brain. We go back and forth between those two modes when we are, um, trying to learn. But I think more to the point for thinking objectively, I wanna bring up these ideas of declarative thinking through the versus procedural learning through the basal ganglia, procedural learning people mistakenly call that that's, that's just that rote learning, but that's actually that basal ganglia is a network that helps you analyze really, really difficult patterns. Like you speak your native language with all its nuances, because, or most of its nuances, because you're using that basal ganglia procedural system, all of the, the outside world that you take in feeds this basal ganglia system in the same, much, the same way that an artificial intelligence system is fed.
Speaker 1 00:38:22 But here's the thing when you are thinking objectively, you are thinking consciously you are using that hippocampal system and you are consciously aware of what you're thinking, but that procedural system biases your ability to think objectively, and you are completely unaware of it, you, it, so you can get all this input that says, you know, I'm for or against, I dunno, charter schools. And you think you're thinking objectively about charter schools, but you're biased in this way that you're completely subconscious of unconscious of, and the only way to actually get yourself, you know, so you're a little bit less biased is to make sure that procedural system is fed with information from all sides. So there's there, this is explored quite deeply in the, the book uncommon sense teaching and, uh, and also in Mo two of uncommon sense teaching on Corra. There's a, um, I think that those who are trying to pursue thinking objectively you'll find so many fantastic illustrations and animations that help you understand how the brain is trying to pursue this objective way of thinking.
Speaker 0 00:39:54 Well, speaking of MOS, why don't we start with a definition it's, uh, the acronym for massive open online courses, and one of your most impressive accomplishments is having co-created the world's most popular MOOC, uh, with, I understand a million students from more than 200 countries in the first year alone. Maybe you'll give us an update on how that's going. Um, and I also really enjoyed in mind shift how, uh, you share some thoughts about why the course became some, uh, so wildly popular without any in intentional or expensive promotion or, uh, marketing. So I think that's also, uh, should be encouraging to people. Uh, they don't have to be creating an online course, but in whatever, um, project or moonshot that they may have, uh, I mean, you guys did it for under $5,000, is that right?
Speaker 1 00:40:57 Oh, yes. So it is, uh, one of, I'd say one of the top five, uh, largest courses in the world we currently have, well over 300 or 3 million, um, uh, students who've taken the course and, uh, it, so my colleague at co-instructor is te Sinski, uh, the, the Francis Creek professor at the SA Institute. And I remember, um, <laugh>, you know, we are, we were just kind of like, you know, is anybody ever gonna watch this course? And there's, I'm trying to think, I think there's close to 20,000 massive open online courses out there now. So to be in the top five there's, and there's only like 15 that have over a million. Um, and so we've got well over three times that, so it, um, but I think it's because people fundamentally, they wanna think objectively about learning, you know, they wanna know what it, what does science tell us about what's most effective for learning and psychology bless its soul. Uh, uh, if it has a collective one, uh, it's, it's always kind of statistical analysis of things we're seeing outside the brain, rather than so much, what is the brain doing when you're learning and how can you like poke it to make, help it learn faster? So that's what we do in, uh, learning how to learn is bring in neuroscience, but we do it using metaphor. So you can get really deep into the neuroscience, metaphorically speaking, um, with, and, and actually get to the usable insights, which people apparently seem to love.
Speaker 0 00:42:55 Yeah. You know, um, speaking of using metaphors and analogies, I think probably one of the most positively reviewed pieces of writing I ever did was when I was working, uh, with the national commission on economic growth and tax reform. And, uh, they asked me to write the, the final report. And I said, well, I, you know, I don't, um, I'm not, I'm not really good at economics and like, well, you'll figure it out. And I related to a lot of what you shared in, in, uh, in your books, because sometimes if you're not confident in a subject or you, you don't have expertise in it, uh, you have to understand it and then convey it in a way that is accessible to you. And a lot of times that means, you know, coming up with, with anecdotes and, and stories and, and metaphors, uh, now speaking of stories, um, in mind shift, you share a lot of narratives about how people and even a horse <laugh> can shift to more fulfill, fulfilling, and productive modes of behaving and thinking, this seems important both to older generations, uh, who need to re-skill in order to keep up with the pace of technological change, as well as younger generations, which as statistics show will, they're far more likely to change jobs, uh, F far more frequently than, than in the past.
Speaker 0 00:44:28 So, um, maybe talk a little bit about why these tools and techniques, uh, are particularly important for the world of exponential change that we find ourself in today
Speaker 1 00:44:43 That I think the bottom line is that if you use the right approaches to learning, you can actually learn way more and way better than you ever thought you could. And people, they often think of themselves as you know, I'm not a language person, or I'm not a math person, or, but actually with some practice and especially with some retrieval practice, um, you can really be successful. And I think the thing for me is I volunteered for five years in an inner urban school district. And what I saw was that the kids were amazing. They were fantastic, but the system and some of the teachers, I mean, there were some really good teachers, but many of them were, you know, let's say I would, I wouldn't want my children to have them as their teachers. And it's no surprise. I mean, a lot of these kids had never had a single homework problem graded in their entire life.
Speaker 1 00:45:54 So, um, we went in and brought in a, you know, a PR math practice program and no surprise, they became very successful. But I remember just thinking, you know, a lot of these kids are not gonna read a book about how to learn more effectively, but they will watch a video. And so some of these ideas about learning are just so much easier to grasp. If you watch online courses like learning how to learn like uncommon sense teaching, uh, it's like, ah, that's what they're talking about. It's I can do that. And you can actually make enormous changes and really, um, kind of not only help yourself to do what you want to do, but learning anything as it turns out helps promote the growth, uh, of new neurons. And that helps make you feel better. So if you've ever started learning something and notice that you feel better, it's actually because you're learning something new and it can help those new neurons, um, actually help improve mood a lot.
Speaker 0 00:47:12 So is it specifically the process of learning? Cause you know, I know a lot of people are like, oh, I'm doing the crossword puzzle or I'm doing, you know, word games or whatever. Is there something unique about learning a new skill or about a new subject that is, that's
Speaker 1 00:47:32 A very perceptive question. If you think about it doing a crossword puzzle or doing something that is like stretching, you're stretching, but you're only stretching the tiniest bit. You know, it's like a word that you already know and you're just trying to connect back into that word and fit it into place. Um, so it's kind of like tiny, tiny learning, but if you are learning something, you know, that's like a foreign language that now that is new learning and it's, it's actually new learning can sometimes make you feel like, Ooh, a little uncomfortable. It's like, how do I, oh wait, is that masculine or feminine with this noun? You know, how do I conjugate this verb again? You have to think in these ways that you may not, you know, that you haven't done before. And that's the part that helps those new neurons survive, thrive, and grow and make you feel better.
Speaker 0 00:48:35 All right. Well, I've mentioned the narrative that you share in, um, mind shift and I was reading along and all of a sudden Stephen Hicks jumped off the page and I was like, I know that guy, he's a senior scholar at the ATLA society. So, um, maybe you could share a bit about, uh, what, why you included him in the book, but first you have to share with our audience, um, the story of your, your meeting him and, uh, the one philosophy book at the time.
Speaker 1 00:49:08 Oh, okay. So, uh, it it's it's I was attending a workshop led by a man named Steven Hicks and I was very impressed. He, he was obviously super smart out learning a lot. It was just so cool. And we got in conversation during a break and I mentioned, you know, we, we talked a little, we alluded to philosophy. And I said, you know, there was only one book that I ever read at philosophy. Um, that actually made sense to me. And I CA but I can't remember the name of it or who the author was, but it was an orange book. So during break, I went up to my, you know, to my, uh, room and I looked up what's the book. And by golly, it was Steven Hick's book. So I come back and I'm like, Steven, well, guess what it was explaining postmodernism book. And, uh, indeed it is. Um, I, I should have it on my shelves here. I do, but I won't make you wait while I go dig it up, but it is really a fabulous book. And so I highly recommend it to you if, if you are listening in the audience
Speaker 0 00:50:25 Indeed, indeed. And, uh, you know, in terms of our approach to making things more accessible, Steven also helped to advise on our pocket guide to postmodernism because it is an excellent book, but explaining postmodernism is, is a, um, it's challenging book. You know, it's, it's a very sophisticated, dense book. Uh, so it's, I think probably a bit more accessible to, um, someone like yourself or serious students of, of philosophy, but it it's, it's fascinating. And I think it was also very groundbreaking. I hear a lot about post-modernism from different, uh, and critical social justice theory, um, as, as kind of one of the outgrowths of postmodernism, but Steven was a pioneer in, in the field. Um, so, uh, now you have, I think we, you touched on this earlier on, um, in terms of how teaching methods have changed and not always, um, for the better in terms of what you know about, uh, how we learn. So, um, in particular, I think you've touched on how we are approaching teaching subjects like science, technology, engineering, and math, and you said it's time to bring some memorization back. So, uh, would you elaborate on that?
Speaker 1 00:51:57 Oh, the, the, the basic idea is that if you don't have fundamental knowledge in your own brain, you can't be creative with it and people will even do silly mistakes. For example, um, they, one example, um, that Natalie Wexler brought up is the idea that civil rights, uh, and the civil war are like two very different concepts. Um, but because kids were not required to remember anything, they just sort of, it was the, you know, they're supposed to have a conceptual understanding of each of them. That didn't mean that they actually were required to know anything like what years did each of these activities take place. So students were thinking things like Martin Luther king and Abraham Lincoln must have been buddies, uh, because clearly they're kind of on the same side about this. I mean, just ridiculous sorts of conclusions simply because it was considered antithetical to creativity, into having a good knowledge base to actually make kids remember anything, memorize anything.
Speaker 1 00:53:23 So, um, I mean, how can you have people, um, compare and contrast the French and Russian and American revolutions, if you have no facts in your head about each one of these, it's impossible to have a higher level conceptual understanding. So, um, I mean, it's, it's very clear that, um, you know, these well, it just, it makes me a little sad. I published a, um, an oped in the New York times just saying that American school children don't get enough practice in math to be able to be, uh, successful with it. I swear from the reaction, you would've thought that I had suggested burning down all elementary schools in the country. Yeah. I mean, all these math teachers were like practice you, oh, remembering multiplication tables. That's how you kill their interest. And it's like, no, oh, contrary. I mean, you don't learn to play guitar by just playing air guitar all the time.
Speaker 1 00:54:39 You actually have to practice with what you're doing in order to be. And sometimes it involves things like learning how to play scales and so forth. And it's not necessarily, um, exciting to do, but you get students through those initial hurdles and it's like getting kids through the initial hurdle of falling off your bicycle. Once you get past that, you can start flying and it's kind of fun, but, uh, we, we keep kids, unfortunately at that, that, um, sort of proto stage of learning where it's all supposed to be fun all the time and, and learning isn't like that. I mean, I wish it was like that, but it, you know, to be a good learner, sometimes you have to kind of put in the effort to get past this, and then it feels good to be able to, you know, to master the material, to, to have it at your backing call in, in your brain. And, and that's where we need to be aiming, uh, in accordance with objective research results.
Speaker 0 00:55:49 Yeah. I, I think a kind of common thread, um, is that we need to get more comfortable with, with being uncomfortable and, uh, and that, uh, there's almost something having to do with the stress inherent, you know, and challenging yourself and learning something new, uh, that may have, or does have as, as you've pointed to the evidence, uh, actual neurological, um, healthy benefits. And I think also, you know, know, learning to be, to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable and accepting challenge also. Um, and this kind of connects with open object of the open objectiveist approach we take at the out society, because in mind shift, you, uh, you said some cultures and some cultures and subcultures are better are for better, for worse. Uh, they, they clinging more closely to the, to past legacies. Uh, again, I quote this can make it more difficult for useful new ideas, um, to scamper through the mind field of propriety and make it into public use. So, uh, I've certainly observed this in looking how, uh, a different approach to objectiveism closed objectiveism has, has kind of promoted, um, an atmosphere of didacticism and intellectual conformity, which
Speaker 0 00:57:17 Limits creativity and how important, uh, creativity is to all human progress. So, um, just have a couple of minutes left, but, uh, what are, what are some of those hallmarks of, of more open inve uh, innovation, friendly cultures, like free speech, for example, or, you know, forward looking, uh, maybe as opposed to thinking about the past,
Speaker 1 00:57:47 It's so interesting that you bring this up. There's a recent research paper that, um, that has found that personal of growth occurs through discomfort and through having an attitude of being willing to embrace discomfort and ideas that make you feel uncomfortable. That's where personal growth comes from. It doesn't come from just sort of, yeah. You know, let's just listen to the ideas that make me feel good, um, which may feed your dopamine and make you feel good, but it doesn't help you with that personal growth. So I, I think that, um, it's, you know, it's, I, I'm not sure which way our society will go, because it's a little bit like a, a flock of birds that each influence one another. And you can't say there's one leader, um, necessarily for many flocks of birds, but it, I think it's, um, that if we want to remain in open society, that ideas like free speech and listening to ideas that make you feel uncomfortable are critical.
Speaker 1 00:59:02 And having that ability to do that is critical. And it really, um, makes me sorrowful that young people can for the most altruistic of reasons embrace the idea that free speech should only occur in a small area and should be really corded off from most people. Um, I think it's hard for people to realize that trying to make another person stop saying things is very occasionally due to the fact that what they're saying could truly be harmful for others. It's far more likely in what I've seen, that, uh, there's a motivated reason for people to not want that other person to say what they're saying, just because it's going to, um, not be helpful for whatever narcissistic goal they're aiming at.
Speaker 0 01:00:17 Fascinating, fascinating, uh, well, that actually brings us to the top of the hour. And, uh, you know, as, as, uh, Peter teal has observed that we are in a deadly race between politics and technology. So in terms of your thinking about where we will end up, of course, things are getting a lot more political, but, um, we're also seeing these new technologies, like the, uh, massive open online courses, um, and, and ways that, that we can continue to move forward in a positive direction. So, uh, Barbara, thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 1 01:01:00 Well, thank you so much for having me and what a great conversation.
Speaker 0 01:01:04 Yes. Again, everyone, the book is mind to shift, go out, get it on Amazon right now. Again, I can highly recommend the audible version and, um, Barbara, where, where are, is the best way for us to follow your activities? Um, sign up for your author's page on Amazon, but, uh, are you a social media person or,
Speaker 1 01:01:29 Oh, it's okay. So, uh, if you go to learning how to learn and register, so it's free when they ask you to come on, you know, just, just register for it. You'll get my, you know, once every few weeks or once a month, it goes, uh, email and it goes out to about 3 million people. So, um, so just take a look, just sign up for that. And then if you're just, if you're interested in the courses and books and so forth, just go to Barbara oakley.com and you'll see lots of stuff there.
Speaker 0 01:02:03 Awesome. Terrific. All right. Well, thank you very much. I wanna thank also the audience. Um, I know you guys are gonna be mad at me because there was a lot of questions that I didn't get to, but I had a few that I, I really wanted to cover with, uh, professor Oakley. Um, but you know, we are gonna be kind of continuing the conversation at least this last note on which we ended about, uh, academic freedom and tolerance and free speech next week, uh, with my guest professor Charles NEK, he's an associate professor of psychology at the university of central Florida. He was canceled due to his critique of race based privilege, um, and the culture of conformity on campus. So we're gonna talk to him about his experience and also his book, uh, white shaming. So should be spicy hope. You'll join us as, as always, if you enjoy our interviews, if you enjoy this content, don't be a free loader. Stop by the ATLA society and put something into the tip, can support our work and we will continue to support you. So thanks everyone.