Modern Casting

A Mind for Numbers

If you make the effort to learn how your brain works, you might also discover that you have much greater capacities for mastering those mystifying subjects that stumped you in school. In “A Mind for Numbers,” Barbara Oakley tells her story of conversion from mathphobe to professor of engineering.

The book does more than tell you how your thinking organ behaves—and some of that will surprise you—it inspires you to learn more. More about what really happens when you think, and more about which ideas you’d like to have more clarity about.

First, let’s stipulate that although the book is subtitled “How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra),” it’s a book about learning and learning how to learn. Yes, it does explain how to improve performance in math and science. That’s because the book applies to every kind of learning. Oakley hated math and science growing up. I mean hated. When she describes her excruciatingly painful experiences in math classes, we know how she feels. Many of us have felt the same in those classes.

Young Barbara was stumped by clocks. Why does the long hand not mean hours instead of minutes? The way she tells it, she flunked so many math and science classes, she gave up. Her self-talk seems to have been all about her own stupidity. In retrospect, that’s hard to believe.

She joined the Army and learned Russian, so stupidity was clearly not the problem. Using the GI Bill to fund the effort, Oakley decided to retrain her brain. What did she discover on this path of self-discovery?

The brain switches between highly attentive states (focused thinking) and resting states (diffuse thinking). Focused thinking is well, focused on subject matter in a way that allows you to process ideas into familiar patterns. These familiar patterns can be so potent that the best answers to thorny problems in any discipline remain unsolvable.

Oakley’s approach asks you to learn, consciously, how to toggle between focused thinking and diffuse thinking. You need focused thinking to concentrate and understand the material to an extent. But diffuse thinking will lead to that flash of insight that solves the problem when you’re not (focused) thinking about the issue.

We’ve all had this experience. We just didn’t know what was happening in our brains. You’re driving down the highway, and a solution springs full blown from you mind, like some Greek deity from the head of Zeus.

No matter the learning task, consciously exploiting your toggle switch between modes is helpful, and not just because you think it’s nap time. However, math and science are harder to learn than other topics because they have an extra layer of abstraction or to use Oakley’s word, “encryptedness.”  Meaning, you can easily and concretely associate a C-O-W with Bessie in the pasture, but you have no correlation to a (+) in the world. The plus sign is abstract, but the cow is concrete.

Thanks to Oakley’s book, you know how that happens. Better yet, you can coach yourself to attain these epiphanies. Focus, diffuse, answer, move on. It’s not that simple, but those are the dance steps. If you’ve ever gone to sleep thinking about an issue to have the answer right there in the morning? That’s your diffuse mind taking over. However, you don’t have to enter the dream world to gain the benefits of diffuse thinking. You can talk a walk, go for a drive, or just stare out the window. Let the diffuse thinking begin!  

Click here to see this story as it appears in the August 2017 issue of Modern Casting



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