Learning How To Learn: On Altruism and Memory With Barbara Oakley

learning how to learn with barbara oakleyAre you interested in learning how to learn at a higher level? I’m talking about mastering math, sailing through high-pressure exams and making the most of your study time. Every time you sit down to learn.

If knowing how to do that sparks your interest, in this special interview, bestselling author and world famous video professor Barbara Oakley shares her best study and memory tips.

Plus, as the author of some interesting works on human nature, you’ll discover some of Barbara’s most powerful insights about altruism and memory that you won’t soon forget.

You can read the transcript in full below. Plus, please be sure register for the next free session of Barbara’s popular course, Learning How To Learn and make sure to follow her on Amazon for the latest news about her incredible books.


How A Former Math Flunky Changed Her Brain
And Created A Mind For Numbers


Anthony: Barbara, thank you so much for being on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast. One of the things that I wanted to begin with was your first memory of being interested in learning as a topic, as a subject, even at a meta level where you’re aware of this as being a concern, an issue, and something that you can optimize.

Barbara: Oh, it’s funny because I think there are two kinds of people who are teachers. There are people who are teachers because they really love teaching. There are people who are teachers who really hate teaching. They’re very shy about getting in front of a bunch of people, and they only do it because they feel it’s so important to communicate what they’re trying to communicate.

I fall more or less into the latter category. I never envisioned myself becoming a teacher or learning about learning or anything of that nature at all. It wasn’t until I was probably, well, about five years ago, four years ago, something like that, one of my students asked me. He found out that I had been a formal math flunky. I had flunked my way through elementary, middle and high school math and science. Which is really kind of ironic since I’m now a professor of engineering.

He asked me, “How did you do it? How did you change your brain?” I wrote him a little a page of information about how I had been a linguist in the Army. I’ve always loved languages and that’s all I thought I could ever do. How did I gradually shift? Well, not so gradually but with a lot of work, to being able to assimilate and master math and science. I wrote him this email, and then I thought well, you know, how did I really do that? That’s a very good question.

I started looking more deeply into it.  A Mind for Numbers grew out of that. I thought, oh you know that’s a very straightforward thing, I’ll just kind of put together some of the good insightful research and talk a little bit about that. Of course, it was far more intensive than I ever might have dreamed.


The Biggest And Best Permission
You Can Give Yourself As A Learner


I think it was just such an interesting experience to realize that I’d never really thought about learning even though I remember when I was growing up. I was like man, you know, isn’t there an easier way to learn these things because I do these stupid things like reread a page over and over and over again. Then finally I would flip the page and there the answer would be. If I had just turned the page earlier, I would have kind of figured it out.

Anyway, I backed into it I think. But, I do notice that when I’m in front of my classes. I think because I’m very empathetic, I’m always looking at them and going you know they didn’t get that. I know they didn’t get that even though I explained it very clearly. A lot of learning is just growing out of wondering about how other people learn.

Anthony: That’s very interesting. I think so many people they wind up getting into teaching as an art itself by having that experience of being asked how did you learn that and coming from a space where they weren’t masters of something first, or that not even close to mastery, but actually flunking in that area.

I wonder what lessons you might give to someone in sort of number one thing you have to realize if you’re failing right now in something like math, that someone struggling with could see that turn around perhaps in the future.

Barbara: Probably the biggest thing that if I had known back in the day when I was trying to retool my brain and actually learn math and science, and even before when I was just plain flunking it, the biggest thing that I could have done was to realize that it is quite all right to not understand something the first time you see it. I always thought I must be an idiot because these other people are all understanding what’s going on and clearly I’m not. I’m just really slow.

It is quite all right to not understand something the first time you see it.Click To Tweet

If anything, the only reason I persevered was I would just kind of say well I don’t care even if I’m really slow and it takes me more time than everybody else, I’ll just try to hide that and I’ll still learn it anyway. Of course, to other people it just looked like I was really doing well. But behind it was a lot of work because I’m not one of those naturally gifted, really bright learners.

But in the same sense I think because of the that, when I learn something I really learn it at a very deep level. I think it’s that way for many people. They think they are not very bright, but actually the way they have to learn it because their brains may not be like swift moving, that they can actually learn it much more deeply.


The Magic Of Concentrated Effort For Creating Impetus


Anthony: I read somewhere someone made a mathematical proposition that something like 98 percent of people just give up after the first resistance that they come across. I wonder how did you develop in yourself this stamina or what would you call it this ability to give yourself that permission to have it okay that you didn’t get it the first time.

Barbara: I think what worked for me is to be successful in something that did require some learning, some concentrated effort in other words. Whether that something is learning how to play a musical instrument, or learning to sing, or learning to play soccer, or learning any number of different kinds of things, if you learn one thing so you are successful at it, then that gives you the impetus to think you know maybe if I just stick with this next thing I can be more successful.

I think that’s probably the thing. For me, I joined the Army and learned Russian. I just learned step by step how do you practice and really learn a language well. In doing that it sort of taught me meta skills about learning and that has served me in good stead in math and science.


The Special Meta Skill That Links Math And Language


Anthony: As a linguist, do you see a relationship between math and language?

Barbara: Oh, very much so. There’s a sort of an expert on experts. His name is Anders Ericsson, who works out of Florida and just wrote a great book called Peak on becoming an expert in virtually any topic. Often what you’re doing when you’re learning a language is you’re not just memorizing a bunch of vocabulary words although that actually is an important part of learning a language. You are learning to think in a different way and to be able to process that information in a very different way so you cannot just spew out a bunch of vocabulary words, but you can bring out the grammatical structure and do it quickly.


That is a big part of what’s going on in math and science. You’re bringing out a new numerical structure, and you have to be able to do it fluently. If you haven’t practiced enough, you have nothing, no patterns to pull into your working memory to make things easier. You’re just doing everything de novo in your working memory and it’s too hard to do.

I think there are great similarities and I think part of the reason may be, in this country, many engineers are from other countries besides the U.S. Part of that is that there is a big need for engineers and there’s not enough engineers in this country. I think part of it too is that those coming from outside the U.S. they know how do we learn because they’ve often had to learn English. That has, I think, been a meta skill that has transferred to their ability to also do well in math and science and engineering sorts of topics.

Anthony: That’s a fascinating point. I think one thing that I observed when I was studying German is that the Russian learners, particularly the Russian learners, seemed to get German articles a lot easier.

That seemed to have something to do with the fact, this is just my conjecture, but it seemed to have something to do with the fact that they didn’t have to deal with articles. When they came across articles, they got them the first time because it was just the sort of new sort of thing.

For an English speaker, where we do have articles just not of the gendered kind, the brain wants to get lazy and sort of ignore that. We’re not really thinking of it in quite the same way as people who don’t have articles. If that if that makes sense as a kind of observation of how learning another language can then give you a skill that can transfer over to it to something else like math.


How To Learn A Language – Even If
You Have Limited Working Memory

(Hint: Almost All Of Us Do)


Barbara: I think that’s a very interesting point. Well, let’s say you learn –I’m studying Spanish now. I am a slow learner, but I’m going to be using your techniques to help speed things up.

When you’re learning those kinds of things, you’re working away at it and cognitively I have a very limited working memory. What that means is that things fall out of my working memory very easily. But because some things fall out, other things come in and that is correlated with perhaps why I might be considered more creative.

When people say, “Oh man, I have to work so hard to keep these things in mind. What’s going on?” They often think, “Oh I must be so kind of dumb because I don’t have a steel trap mind like some people.” They are often more creative people and so it’s actually a talent that they have. I try to remind myself of that when I’m when I don’t have a steel trap mind in memorizing vocabulary and so forth.


 Barbara’s Take On The Ancient Art Of Memory


Anthony: What you say is your number one technique that you go to when you really need to remember something?

Barbara: Trying to equate something with something extremely off color. If something happens to come to mind that is either just really wacky or else something that’s not repeatable in the public forum, it will stick. I mean whether I like it or not it’ll probably stick very well.

Indeed, the old memory experts from ancient Greece often said the same thing that if you use unrepeatable sorts of things to help you remember things that can be helpful. But just wacky images sometimes.

My challenge, and if I can turn the question around to you, my challenge is I’m really slow. Let’s say I’m trying to remember a Spanish phrase. How can I put that in my mind other than repeat it a whole bunch of times and hear it? It is hard for me to come up with some kind of wacky sort of mnemonic that would help me more easily place it in my memory.

Anthony: Well there’s a lot of ways to skin that cat. Phrases are an interesting thing because I always try to work from a word and then add a phrase to a word. If you had a key there like token, for example, and you had a Memory Palace location where that token was, and then you already knew conjunctions for nosotros, then you could encode an entire phrase around that mnemonic for token.

You could think of a number of ones and use that Memory Palace where you had that word to make a number of phrases with the word token for example or we and token. There’s that option. I like to bulk things up so it’s never just about like one phrase but multiple phrases for a single word. If that makes sense.


The Energizing Way To Learn Pronunciation
Using Memory Techniques


That’s kind of related to the theory of substitution in language learning. Right now, I’m learning Chinese and my biggest problem with Chinese is not memorizing vocabulary but actually reciting the tones. I learned, let’s see if i can get this right, and people will listen to this and correct me I’m sure if i didn’t. Winter, and now i feel on the spot so I am going to try and get this, but I member it is, oh how did this go.

There’s a tree with a number nine and a yoyo that is smashing a teacup with yen that’s burning inside of it. That’s not winter that’s fall. Sorry, winter is a different, that’s autumn right but I’m getting that mixed up because right beside that is another tree that represents winter. Then I have spring and summer. They all end with 天 tiān.

Now, I have to remember that almost all of these are words that have the first tone. One of them has the fourth tone and the first tone. Now, I have a frog there because I’m using the major method to remember the tones. I have the number nine because number nine is 九 jiǔ or something pronounced like that. It’s like a lot of confusing stuff. This is my challenge as a teacher which is one reason why it’s very interesting to speak with you because I’m always trying to think of how can I teach this stuff better.

Because mnemonics are insane. You are saying well there’s a frog and then there’s a teacup with yen burning inside of it to remind me of 天 tiān. I don’t know the best way to teach these crazy images to people in a way that really makes sense, when it makes sense to me. I have a basis now to recall that again and again without any flashcards.

I just have to remember that it’s something like 天 tiān. Then, when it comes to substitution, I would say to my speaking partner 我喜欢秋天 which means, “I like autumn.” Then I want to be able to say, tomorrow I will also like autumn, or next week it will be winter and I will like winter. Start changing the phrase so that it is today I like autumn. Tomorrow I will like autumn. Next week I will still like autumn, or I will like winter, or it will be autumn after winter. This is sort of like the substitution thing.

If you just have that one word, then you can play with the phrases around it. I have a park that has the four seasons. It’s just a matter of practicing those pronunciations. I go in my mind. I see the tree. I see the images. I know some basics of phrases, and I just start drilling different phrases around that.


How To Deal With Learning In Little Snippets


Barbara: That makes a lot of sense. I’m going to incorporate that into my Spanish practice. It also relates in a way to the concept of interleaving. This is something that is frequently spoken of in the context of math and science learning.

I teach statistics and probability. I have my textbook and it goes through chapters one by one of the various aspects and it kind of builds up. Often what is in chapter four is rather unrelated to chapter six and unrelated to chapter eight. You learn everything in these little snippets.

You learn chapter four and you can do the techniques of chapter four. Then chapter eight and you learn those techniques and so forth. But the only time you ever see them all at one time is during the final examination. People sometimes say ‘oh I just don’t know how to do this stuff’ because they haven’t learned how to pick out one thing as a one technique as opposed to a different technique because they’re taught in different chapters.

What you’re doing is you are using a commonality, a word or a concept, but then you’re saying oh but you can use it this way. Then there’s another way to use it. You are kind of interleaving at the same time that you’re bringing everything together with a single word. I think that’s really cool. It’s a great approach to learning.

Anthony: I certainly have a lot of fun with it and one of the questions that I’d prepared to ask you relates to this. You talk about index cards, how to optimize the index cards process and how that revisiting information absolutely is critical. I’m the kind of student, and I always have been, with language study in particular, I’m not the kind of person who’s going to ever use them. I’m not going to use spaced repetition software.

I think that is what has appealed to people about my books. They are often attractive to people who are also not ever going to use that. But knowing that they are effective and knowing that spaced repetition that is assisted by software is also effective for creating a long-term memory, I wonder what other alternatives you might suggest to people who also aren’t going to go that route but do need to be revisiting information.


The Power of Learning In Spare Moments


Because the example that I just gave you, the reason why that I can remember it today, noting that my pronunciation isn’t perfect yet, is because I’ve repeated it in my mind several times. I just haven’t done it with index cards in front of me.

Barbara: There’s several different ways that you can approach it. Maybe a good way is to just use those spare moments to recall what you can of whatever you’re trying to work on. That effort to recall will actually do a good job. Whatever you can recall, that’s going to imprint that ever more deeply on your mind.

(Note from Anthony: You could practice recalling in either The Freedom Journal or The Cosmic Journal.)

We do want to let our minds wander some. We don’t want to use every spare second. “Oh, I’m going to the bathroom now. I’ll conjugate my verbs.” There are lots of spare moments. When I go for a walk, sometimes I’ll practice to become more fluid at certain phrases. I’ll be walking along, and of course my husband is like what are you doing. I’ll just be doing something perhaps in my mind or saying it out loud.


The Great Thing About Sticky Notes
And The Annoying Thing About Flashcards


Using those kinds of moments. If it’s really important, it can’t hurt to take a sticky note and stick it on your mirror with whatever that phrase or whatever is going on. I often will tell my students in my face-to-face classes, see this point right here, see this equation. This is such an important equation that you should put it on a sticky note on your mirror and memorize it.

It can't hurt to take a sticky note and stick it on your mirror with whatever that phrase or whatever is going on. Click To Tweet

Whenever you go in front of that mirror, see if you can remember it and then check and make sure you got it right. That’s a good technique. What I find annoying about flashcards is you get it in your mind faster than you can flip the flashcards. It’s like is this sticking? It’s like you know where you are going already and you just want to go right through them.

Of course, it would be quicker to have something like Anki or something like that. A lot of the time I don’t want to take the time to type it all in manually. I will do some by handwriting. I often like to have sheets of paper where I just write on one side. I’ll write the words that I’m trying to remember in English and on the other side in Spanish or Russian or what have you. When I kind of get familiar with the page, I’ll put the page aside. I have a big collection of pages. That makes it really quick to go through.

Often the kinds of things that you’re trying to remember are related to one another and you want to see the patterns for how they change. It’s hard to do that with flashcards. If you write them on pages, you can see the relationships between different tenses say or that kind of thing.

It doesn’t seem to me to matter so much that I’m able to mix them up with flashcards, that’s the one advantage of flashcards, but they’re so much faster to quickly review something. Even the act of writing it out, of course, is helpful.


The Amazing Genesis Of Learning How To Learn


Anthony: Thank you for those great thoughts on memory that’s very useful. I wanted to talk as well about a great course that you have on Coursera called Learning How to Learn. This is something people can find on Coursera and it’s a free course. I just wonder, what’s the evolution of that course? How did it come into being? What does it mean to learn how to learn?

Barbara: I sort of backed into doing the course. It’s kind of funny, my husband and I were down in the basement filming the course. We were just kind of going, gosh, is anybody ever even going to watch this? Why are we doing this?

It was like we have to do this. We just have to do this because it has a lot of helpful information and we feel it’s really important. Now it’s the most popular course in the world. It’s about 1.6 million enrolled students so far. People just really love the course. They find a lot of value. It’s people from all walks of life.

Five percent of the learners have their Ph.D.’s. I got an email from a fifth grader about 12 years old who says oh I took a course with my mother. You know I never realized that professors could be so witty.

I was like well if you knew how long I worked to try to be witty. Then our older daughter was at that time in med school. She was sitting in her class in med school and being taught by a preeminent specialist in southeast Michigan. He suddenly, there’s seventy medical school students, and he suddenly stops the class, points right at her and says you. You’re the girl in the MOOC, the massive open online course.

Here’s this preeminent specialist taking this course of on learning so that he can be a better specialist at what he’s doing. But I think what can happen just willy-nilly in any discipline is that it grows this the sort of structure that is sort of haphazard. It’s a cruise through history.


What You Really Need To Learn
When Learning How To Learn


For example, people now will say, oh man anybody who did a course on learning that’s what a no brainer it’s going to be the most popular course in the world. But I would beg to differ. I would venture to guess that if let’s say that you happen to go to a school of education and you said you know I want you to do a course on learning. They would have immediately said great. You know teachers really need a course like that. Then you no, no, no, that’s not what I want. I want a course on learning for people in general.

What you would have gotten was an online course that would have had two or three weeks on the history of education. Two or three more weeks on educational theories and then how babies learn and then maybe a little bit on the end about how people might learn a little effectively with maybe a lecture or two on neuroscience. But that’s it because it’s really tough and we can’t go there.

If you can see that kind of structure, which is a very natural structure, it would have grown because there are all sorts of different groups in education. They all have their approaches and their desires. I teach the history of education. You have to cover my material in your MOOC and so forth.

My co-instructor in the course Learning How to Learn is Terry Sejnowski. He’s the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute. He’s one of only ten living human beings who is simultaneously a member of all three national academies.

The approach that we took was just to upend everything. To say now wait a minute. Let’s start from what do we really need to know about how our brain works, I mean truly from a neuroscientific perspective in order to leverage that to learn more effectively.

We don’t have to start with here’s a neuron. Here’s how a neuron works. We can take the fundamental key ideas and bring those forth and explain them using metaphor so that people can easily grasp some key approaches about how their brain works. The we can use that to build on all sorts of different aspects of what cognitive psychology and neuroscience are revealing about how you learn effectively not just in the humanities and social sciences.

As important as those are, but also in the sciences which I think a lot of those who teach about how to learn don’t have a solid high caliber professional expertise in a mathematical or engineering or technical type of discipline. It is sort of like what they’re teaching actually doesn’t really apply to how you learn effectively and learn science, technology, engineering and math.

The way we’re teaching is in a way that is meant to be encompassing of all disciplines. Of not just more of the soft sciences side of things, but everything. I think when you look at meta learning in that fashion you can really enhance people’s understanding of their brains and their limitations and how those limitations can also simultaneously be strengths.

Anthony: Is there a sense that by learning something, at least on the surface seems more difficult, like engineering and science than a liberal arts topic, is there a sense that greater rigor makes it easier to learn in the humanities if you have learning experience and meta learning understanding from something like engineering to transfer over? The reason why I ask that is because I have a liberal arts background and I can juggle continental philosophy quite well.


The Truth About Learning As A Transferable Skill


But when I look at something like engineering, and I’m now actively learning math with the help of your book, because I’ve been one of those people who sucked it algebra. But I still look at all that stuff, and I don’t feel like I have those tools. I talk to a lot of engineering and mathematical people and they’re like oh that’s easy. They just sort of get it but that stuff that I had to be trained to get. You know what I’m sort of saying? Is there a transferable skill from the technical sciences to liberal arts that isn’t transferable the other way?

Barbara: I believe so, but I also believe that there is important and, in fact, vital value to the social sciences and humanities they can be lost if you use solely focus on a technically mathematical. There are many things that can be grasped more easily if you do have an engineering or science kind of background, a mathematical background.

But at the same time, you have to be really careful because you don’t want to say well yeah, I can do anything because I’ve got this great science background. No, you can’t! You also want to be keeping your feet in both worlds I believe.

I learned math and science. I started learning it when I was 26. Because I started learning it at an older age, I feel as if I speak it with a bit of an accent. I’m not as fluent as somebody who was a whiz when they were kids and they always studied it and so they became a professor of engineering. They are just naturally good at the numbers and so forth.

I can be very good at them, but it’s not like it flows quite so easily. By the same token, I think that I often think more creatively about things because I am much more aware of the structure because I had to learn it as an adult. I guess the best thing I could say is yes I do think math and science gives you a transferable skill that can make some things in the humanities and social sciences easier to learn. But, you can get those transferable skills in math and science at any age.


Why You Need To Learn An
Entirely New Way Of Thinking


It’s just that it is kind of like learning a language in that you’re not just memorizing vocabulary. You’re learning a new way of thinking and it’s that new way of thinking that is what provides for some of the transferable skills.

Anthony: I think of it in particular because I was trying to go back to school and I wanted to go into an M.A. program, and I have a Ph.D., M.A. in science here in Berlin and they said oh no you’ll have to go back and get a B.A. in science. But, looking into it you know it is I just don’t have that grounding even though I have some understanding of the concepts and so forth. But they simply won’t let me in without having done that groundwork first which makes sense given what you’re saying.

Barbara: I can add a sort of a side point. There are some programs where you can take tests and test into master’s programs without having to have the bachelor’s degrees and some people are using MOOCs, massive open online courses to train themselves, and then they’re taking these tests and going directly. They are getting that undergraduate degree equivalence without having to pay enormous sums of money, and, also giving up big parts of their life. Then just leaping right into the master’s programs.


The Darkside Of Altruism And
Its Connection To Your Memory


Anthony: I want to shift gears a little bit, because one of the things that I get to do in my job as in interviewer people about learning and memory is also talk about some of their other interests that connect maybe in a different way to memory and a shared interest that we have is altruism. As I shared with you, I did my Ph.D. in humanities, and I wrote about friendship and had something related to something you’ve talked about in a book called Cold Blooded Kindness. You edited a collection that is called Pathological Altruism.


I have since had some similar ideas about how that altruism has a dark edge to it. I wanted to ask you a few questions about that especially in the age of online education and so forth where there seem to be so many people doing things altruistically. First of all, what is altruism and then we’ll go from there.

Barbara: Well, that’s an open-ended question. I wrote a book many years ago with the intentionally ironic title of Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. It was about why do nasty people do what they do. It got great critical acclaim. I was really surprised. It did very well. Steven Pinker wrote a really nice blurb for it.

What came out of that was I begin to realize certain people will come up to me and they’d say well Hitler, he may have been evil, but all Germans weren’t evil. How come they all climbed on board with him. I mean that was a very good question.

I thought a lot about that and began to realize that the best way to get people on board with things is to claim you’re doing something to help others. That’s really how Hitler came to power was he’d say it’s when I appeal to their best traits, that’s when I’ve got them.

Whatever political persuasion you might have, you’re immediately thinking no it’s that other one. That’s the one. They’re doing that. They’re appealing to people. But each side is actually saying the same thing.

I think it’s important as critical thinkers to also step back and look at both sides, be able to do that and not look at the other side through the lens of the things that people on your side say about them.

Because she was like I know all about them. I heard it. I read these articles. But they are articles framed by people on your side. Critical thinking means you actually go in and look at it from other people’s perspectives, from the perspective of the people of that side.


The Counterintuitive Reasons
Why Altruism Can Be So Dangerous


You could look at all the definitions of altruism, but when I really begin studying altruism, what I finally discovered is altruism is whatever you want it to be. It varies by culture. It varies by what your intentions are. It varies. If you’re a rather narcissistic individual, you will believe that whatever you’re doing is altruistic. It’s by definition. If it’s good for you, it’s good for everybody even if it kills millions.

Altruism is the most dangerous – it’s the best trait and also the worst trait of humanity because it can be so easily used to seduce us into doing really bad things. Look at all the terrorism going on now. It comes out of people who are, at least superficially and I think in large part, actually very much willing to give their lives, because they think that they’re helping some in group of theirs.

Altruism is a very dangerous thing and it’s a touchy thing to talk about because among many deeply well intentioned people it’s practically a religion. You never question altruism. It’s like it’s like questioning the most fundamental tenet of your sacred approach to life. People really get upset about that kind of thing.

I’m always just a bit wary in talking about pathological altruism because the most pathologically altruistic of people are the ones who get really touchy about you ever questioning their altruism.

Anthony: I think people are touchy. I mean I wrote about friendship as being potentially pathological. I just called it hypothetical consent which was I actually got the term from a philosopher, David Benatar. It’s not in my dissertation. If people ever look that up and they’re searching for hypothetical consent it is not there, but it’s what I came to call after my dissertation was written.

It’s the idea that in friendships we assume hypothetically that we can do certain things because that person is our friend. Because they are our friend we can do certain things. There’s like a tautology there. That’s one of the things that got me very fascinated about what you were talking about with pathological altruism. A little bit different, but it is sort of this kind of thing that as you said a person will tend to think that whatever they’re doing is altruistic because they see themselves as altruistic. They assume hypothetically the consent to act in particular ways.

I wanted to ask you if you see a connection there to memory. Because I see a connection to memory that is a bit vague, but it seems to me that so many people become memorable to us because of the altruistic things that they do. That seems to be a way that we encode ourselves on other people’s minds.

I just wonder if you have any thoughts about that in response how that your idea of pathological altruism touches memory, just memory as such as a cultural phenomenon, a biological phenomenon, a thing that happens to us and that we can do to ourselves and have done to us by others.

The Fascinating Truth About
Bill Clinton’s Memory And Altruism


Barbara: You bring up so many interesting ideas with that. People will often say Bill Clinton is just an extraordinary person. He’s such a people person. You immediately get this feel that he cares about you as an individual when you meet him.

I’ve known a number of people who have met or have known him. One of the things he does that’s quite remarkable is that he remembers you. For example, I met a friend at the Clinton library who five years before had met Bill Clinton, and her husband had been sick that day, he wasn’t able to come, but she’d met him.

Just recently, right before I met her, she had met him again. He remembered her by name, remembered her husband had been sick, asked if he was doing better. I mean there’s this utter charm when you can remember someone’s name that it breaks through everything.

People are charmed, I think, by Bill Clinton. Part of it is, he’ll walk into a room and he hasn’t seen people for a year, and he’ll go around and greet each person by name and shake their hand and so forth. There is this sort of wow. If you look at great leaders through history, part of a common thread is that they had extraordinary memories.

They could remember. People like Hitler had an amazing memory. He could remember all the armaments, all the names from different divisions and so forth. Franklin Delano Roosevelt same thing. Jimmy Carter same thing. Ronald Reagan same thing.


Why People Like It When You Remember Their Name


Having a powerful memory is a great tool to help you get to leadership positions. In part, because people, I think, they really like it when you can remember their names. Of course, it has many other added values sorts of things as well.

Having a powerful memory is a great tool to help you get to leadership positions.Click To Tweet

I do think even though the simple act of remembering a person’s name is a like a kindness. I think for Bill Clinton, it’s easy. There’s some research on memory and some people just plain have incredible memories. I think Bill Clinton is one of them. I don’t think he has to use any kinds of things more ordinary people like me often use.

It’s kind of an amazing thing how memory can be such a powerful tool, but part of it is people like you because of that. But also, I do think that’s the kindness of remembering their names. But like when I’m teaching a class, I take great care to memorize all my students’ names. Very quickly the class becomes like a family. I think it’s because I took the care to memorize the names.

That’s an act of kindness, but I think other acts of kindness can also help people stick in your memory in a good way. Is that pathologically altruistic? I guess it could be. It sort of depends on what your intentions are.


Altruism And Education In The 21st Century


Anthony: Another angle that I wanted to go through quickly with the pathological altruism is online education especially outside of the traditional university relies so much on giving away something for free, building an audience, and then essentially pitching somebody on a product. That seems to be a working model that works very well.

But I wonder are our educators in the twenty first century online being in any way pathological in their altruism as you have gone through it in your studies and other authors that you’ve read on it. Is there a problem in online education that you see emerging as an online educator yourself? Is it more or less a safe sort of thing to do? Do people need to be worried about navigating online education in the future because of this way that altruism can have a pathological aspect to it?

Barbara: The reality is that online education – well let’s put it this way. In the 1950s people started playing basketball better. I mean they just did. They start playing basketball. Why did people suddenly start playing basketball better? It’s because there was television.

Suddenly people could see for themselves what the moves were that some of the top basketball teams were making. If you’re some kid at home, you can try it out. If you are a basketball coach at a high school, you can encourage your students to try it out. Television actually provided this new way of learning about a sport that really improved the sport altogether.

I think that online learning is going to do the same thing. What it does is it showcases a lot of different people. Some of whom do it for free. Some of whom do it because they get they get might get some remuneration. Some because their arms are twisted by their universities to make this course because otherwise you won’t get tenure or something like that.

There’s all sorts of reasons people do it. Basically, what that is doing is getting out into people’s eyes all sorts of different ways about how you can teach effectively. I mean nobody’s going to watch a television show, or not a lot of people are going to watch a television show about in-depth physics, or how to do electronic circuits, or something like. There’s just not a big enough market to make big television shows.


What Makes A MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Succeed


They are kind of like not the same as a classroom. But a MOOC, a massive open online course, it shows a teacher. It gives active learning sorts of exercises similar to that in the classroom. You can watch some of the world’s greatest teachers, not all of them. It’s sort of a little bit of a random funnel. Just because you might be at Princeton or Harvard or Yale teaching doesn’t mean you’re the best teacher for that topic.

But even so you get all these great courses. The really good ones sort of stand out. They get great reviews. What that means is for us as teachers, we can go and look at these courses. We can improve our own teaching as a result.

I think online teaching is whether or not sometimes it might be just somebody doing it because they just feel an urge to do it. I mean that’s why I did the course in the first place, Learning How to Learn, I just thought I just have to do this. I didn’t think there ever be any royalties or anything. I thought it was all just all for free.

Later on, I found out there are there are small royalties that do accrue for certificates. At the same time though, anybody who wants to you can take the complete course for free. Only if you’d like to get a certificate for the course, is it paid. You can take everything for free.

It’s the best of all possible worlds. I can give this material completely for free to anybody who wants it. Some people because it is kind of on the collect the certificates. I know because I collect some of the certificates. It’s like yes, I learned that subject.

If I’m reading something really dry at night, I will fall asleep. if I’m watching a MOOC, it somehow it’s like a got a teacher. They are making it more exciting. It’s really more cool. I really like it. Taking MOOCs is a lot of fun.

How To Find The Perfect Learning Environment


Anthony: Speaking of your own way of taking courses, and it’s exciting to hear that you also take MOOCs which is interesting, one of the things I was curious about is where do you learn best? Both when you’re taking an online course and when you are learning in a more paper, book-bound way or for your Spanish learning or when you learned Russian, what were some of the environments that you learned best in? What characterizes them that people might be able to reproduce so they also can learn better?

Barbara: This actually relates to my next book, which is going to be coming out in spring. It’s going to be one of the lead titles on Penguin Random House. It’s called Mindshift. I’m really excited about it. They even asked me to do the audiobook. I’m going to read the audiobook. I told him I said you need to get somebody really good. They said we are going to. They didn’t tell me it was me.

One thing that people often don’t understand is when you’re when you’re memorizing, it’s often very good to have a very quiet environment. I mean like if you’re really doing something totally need focus for, then a very quiet environment can be helpful. Although, if you want to have a little music, it kind of depends on you. Whatever you want. If you like having music, you can find research that says music is beneficial. If you don’t like music you can find research that says it’s not.

If you’re learning how to learn something that involves concepts, say you’re trying to learn how the structure of how the heart works, how it pumps and all the different motions and movements that are going on with the heart, that’s not something you can just memorize. You actually have to think about how the parts all connect.


Why Memory Techniques Don’t
Apply Equally To All Topics


It’s interesting. Sometimes people in med school, they are like ace memorizers. They can wait until a few days before the exam, a day before the exam, memorize all these anatomical terms, and boom they do great. These same students do terribly when it comes time for the cardiology exam.

It’s because the same techniques just don’t apply. You can’t just sit there and memorize parts of the heart and answer questions about how the heart actually functions. To do that kind of learning, it can often be helpful to go to an environment like a coffee shop or something where there’s like a little bit of disruption here and there. Because that little bit of sound disruption actually puts you into a different mode of thinking momentarily.

It forces you just step out and step back, use more default mode momentarily. That puts you into broader connections neurologically speaking. That can help you see the bigger picture of what you’re working on. You’re going back and forth between a past positive focus mode work and then then stepping back into more diffuse networks and alternating between that can help you when you’re learning kind of difficult and more abstract kinds of learning.

Anthony: That’s fascinating to think that one could have permission to study in a slightly distracting environment and still be able to learn effectively. That’s a good tip. Now here’s a test of my memory. I wanted to ask you what’s coming up next for you and I believe you said the upcoming title of your new book is Mindshift.

Barbara: Yes.

The Global Scope Of Learning How To Learn And
Experiencing Your Own Powerful Mindshift


Anthony: My working memory is intact and that’s very exciting. Is there a release date that people can look forward to?

Barbara: Actually, you can go to Amazon and you can preorder it, which my publisher always likes. The actual publication date is April 18, 2017. It’s doing really well. It is going to be translated into simplified Chinese. It’s already going into translation.

Because of Learning How to Learn, I was able to travel all around the world, talk to learners and kind of get insights from many different perspectives about the best aspects of learning in different parts of the world and kind of bring them together. Even at the same time that I’m talking about the science of learning and things like going to a coffee shop for certain types of learning, it was just marvelous fun to work on the book. In some sense it’s sort of a sequel to A Mind for Numbers and Learning How to Learn.

I’m thinking that that if it goes much bigger in scope. It’s worldwide in scope. I think it’s not very often you find a sort of a combination of travel log with science book with just insights about the human psyche. I am hoping that people might find it of interest in their own lives.

Anthony: I’m glad it’s already available for preorder. I will definitely go and check that out. Just a tip for people, you can go on an Amazon authors page and be notified when new books from them come out. I just learned this myself the other day. That’s something people should definitely do is go and find Barbara Oakley on Amazon and make sure you click that so you know when new books are coming out and check out Mindshift. Add it to your collection so it just gets zipped into your Kindle device when it’s available. I’m going to go over after this interview to do that myself.

Barbara: I have to laugh, because I just followed you on Amazon.

Anthony: Excellent. That’s how I found out about it. Someone else said that they had followed me and so a new thing that I just sort of put out on a whim there. I also want people to check out your other books about Pathological Altruism and the material that you have there. I personally find it super fascinating. Like I said, I sort of had an ulterior motive because I’ve written in my dissertation on a similar topic. I hope one day to turn that dissertation into a book as well. I wanted to get a chance to speak with someone who has been in similar territory. I didn’t mean to cut that short but also get back to the subject of learning. I think I could talk certainly more about that at a different occasion and hopefully have you again maybe some months after Mindshift is available and people have read it to do an interview specifically about that book after I have had a chance to read it.

Barbara: I’d be absolutely delighted. In the meantime, I can hardly wait. I’m going to be ordering a lot of your books. What a treat to meet.

Thanks for reading and listening!

Are You Ready To Take Your Memory To The Next Level?

Further Resources

Barbara Oakley’s personal website

Learning How To Learn On Twitter

How To Improve Focus And Concentration With Joanna Jast

Jonathan Levi On Reducing Your Resistance To Learning

15 Reasons Why Learning A Language Is Good For Your Brain

8 Responses to " Learning How To Learn: On Altruism and Memory With Barbara Oakley "

  1. Servus Anthony
    Wow. What a great interview. Just came back from my evening walk, listening to the podcast along the way. Just wanted to drop this line before I get called away onto other tasks.
    On so many levels this interview spoke to me and my own journey on becoming a better learner (and by extension a better person). As another one of those high school / university math flunkies, I have had a long suffering itch to go back and have another crack getting on top of algebra / statistics and calculus. With my son (who looks like he has his father’s math gene) about to enter high school next year, I see an opportunity to redeem myself and help someoneelse along the way.

    The side journey into altruism equally fascinating. At the moment I am writing a novel set, in part, in Nazi Germany. This issue of the dark side of altruism, as practiced by Hitler is very much an aspect of my main character’s decision to stay in Germany during the war. So now I have Barbara’s “Evil Genes” on my Kindle (Along with a Mind for Numbers).

    Next stop will be to check out her meta-learing online course.

    After listening to the latest Tim Ferris podcast (where he outlines his general approach to meta learning), I’ll be interested to see how all this material intersects.

    A well deserved A+ for enthusiasm and execution.


    • Thanks for this, Richard. I look forward to hearing how the math gene is overcome. Now that I’ve been working on numeracy, I can see that it’s not a gene at all in myself, but some kind of mental laziness buried under the concrete of scholastic boredom in learning something that seemed to have no immediate purpose. But with progressive resistance challenges, math is actually a lot of fun.

      Very cool that the altruism part of Barbara’s work might inform your fiction. You’ve definitely got the right setting for exploring such issues. Can’t wait to read it! 🙂

  2. Yunus Emre says:

    I want to enter some short review of this awesome podcast. I watched the videos which Anthony add here.

    At the end of the video Brian asked her a question. I wanted share it which the reader of this page 🙂 she came the same idea which Anthony shared how to study textbook (https://www.magneticmemorymethod.com/how-to-memorize-a-textbook/)

    Brian: I like to conclude these chats with a question. If you could only teach/share one piece of wisdom and it could be about learning or could this be generally. What would that one piece of wisdom be for people who are passionate about optimizing their life?

    Barbara: If you want to understand something really difficult that you reading in a paper, in a book, on a page, on a website. The best way to grasp it is read it through and then look away and see what major points recall. That’s the key. Don’t sit and highlight, don’t reread it a bunch of times. Don’t sit new concept mapping like teachers sometime tell you to do. Just look at it carefully then see what you can recall and that will build your understanding for better than any other technique.

    I also want to add this video about the book that Anthony and Barbara talked about:


  3. Marta says:

    Great interview! I have taken the course and I highly recommend it. I think this course should be incorporated in schools/colleges curriculum. I have also had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Barbara in person. She is amazing. So accomplished, brilliant, and a genuinely nice person.

    I read Evil Genes and Cold-Blooded Kindness. Her other books are on my list:>)

    Thank you Anthony.


    • Thanks so much for taking a moment to comment, Marta. I really appreciate it.

      It’s great that you could meet Barbara. I hope I will have the honor to do the same one day as well. I also hope Learning How To Learn will become a standard part of world curriculum as well. With everyone helping to spread the good news about the course, it actually is possible to make it happen.

      Thanks again so much – I look forward to your next comment here on the Magnetic Memory Method blog. 🙂

  4. Iris BB says:

    I really enjoyed this interview.

    Me gustó muchísimo esta entrevista, la escuché un par de veces. Busqué a Barbara, descargué algunos de sus libros, vi su plática de TED y me inscribí a su curso. Quedé maravillada.

    Thanks Anthony!

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