Mindshift Week 1

Notes from the MOOC Mindshift.

I've read the book some time ago. I'd also started the course some time ago but never finished it, but since Coursera is offering free online learning (that is, the certs) for selected courses due to Covid-19, I decided to give this another go.


You can do more and be more than you think.

Aptitude tests (and your internal feelings) only reflect that you are good at at this point in time. But you can change - due to your brain changing (forming new connections) every night when you sleep.

Therefore, you can achieve much more than you think you can, including in subjects that you thought you were bad at.

Slow Learners

There are 2 types of brains, the fast, racecar brain, and the slower hiker brain.

Geniuses typically have this fast racecar brain that allows them to jump ahead to conclusions quickly. The downside of this is that they may not accept the (subsequent) feedback that indicates they are wrong. Consequently, they forge ahead on the wrong path. There is a lack of flexibility - they did not frequently change their minds and were not used to it.

The hiker brain is much slower, but there is also value in being a slow learner.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal is a Nobel Prize winner who worked with geniuses with racecar brains, but who himself was not a genius. In his view, it is persistence and flexibility that made him successful in his research, and allowed him to avoid falling into same pitfalls as his genius colleagues.

Active Learning

You learn far more by experiencing and doing things yourself. It sounds self-evident, but we tend to forget this when we learn.

This can be for example in art - watching tutorial videos, but never drawing (practising).

It can be reading with a book in front of you, but not trying to test yourself on what you have read.

Test yourself always, work through problems. Don't fool yourself into thinking you know something because it is in front of you. It is when you don't have the material and try to recall that you know what you don't know.

It is only when you actively engage with the material that you truly learn.

1 hour of studying vs 1 hour of taking a test - you will learn far more by spending that hour taking the test, even if you don't know the answers or get them wrong! At least you will then know what you don't.

Active learning is tiring, so your brain will try to find excuses not to do it.

Talking/interacting with others is one way (perhaps one of the easier ones) of doing active learning. This is because you are also discussing about the material and so you are also working your way through them, I believe.

(I'm taking these notes after each video, based on whatever I've remembered, with some occasional references to the transcript.)

Seemingly Unrelated Knowledge

Thomas Kuhn wanted to learn about how science unfolds. Is it a steady accumulation of knowledge, or is punctuated with breakthroughs here and there?

He found out that it was breakthroughs that punctuated... there were periods of normal science, where knowledge would slowly accumulate using the usual scientific methods in that field.

But then someone comes along, and sees what is there in a new way, and a paradigm shift occurs.

What allows these people to see things in a new way?

  1. Young people who have not yet been indoctrinated in that particular worldview
  2. Older people who made a career switch from another discipline into a new one

So for the second group, it is their knowledge from the other discipline (which may appear unrelated) that allows them to see things in a new way, leading to a breakthrough.

Don't worry about feeling incompetent when you learn something new - those feelings will pass.

The willingness to change, to learn, can be the greatest asset. Your greatest asset.

Mastery Learning

We tend to pick subjects that we are good at to learn, and get more practice, which makes us even better at them. Conversely, we take less of the subjects that we aren't so good at (because it might hurt our grades), which gives us less practice when we need more.

The traditional way of learning is that students in a class are all given the same amount of time to learn, whether they actually understood or not.

Mastery learning is where it's understood that students take different amounts of instruction time and require different amounts of practice with material, but in the end they are still able to master it. So it doesn't matter how long to you take to learn the material - you can still (eventually) grasp it as well.

It turns out that online learning is one of the best ways that support mastery learning - you can watch videos again if you don't undertand. Taking quiz variants until you are comfortable with the material. You can also get exposure to different explanations of the same material.

One pretty-extensive MOOC taker said - it's okay to fail MOOCs, you can watch what interests you. Yes, it is fulfilling to complete a MOOC, but it is not always what you need to do. No one has to know if you drop out or fail. And even if you failed the first time, you can always retake it. Anyway, even if you did fail, you can still learn from the course without passing!

Focused and Diffuse Mode

This topic was covered in LHTL, but here we are introduced to more analogies to help us understand the difference.

The thing about analogies and metaphors is, they serve as a tool for understanding. Once they reach their limit and are no longer useful, it makes sense to throw them away and adopt another analogy/metaphor.

The previous analogy in LHTL for focused vs diffuse mode is that it's like a pinball machine, where your thought is the ball. In focused mode, the pins are very close together, and so you tend to get stuck (like how the ball will get stuck between the tight pins). In diffuse mode, the pins are further apart.

We can also think of it as a network mesh, where in focused mode, the mesh is much closer and the holes are smaller but they are much larger in diffuse mode. In focused mode, a certain part of the network is activated. On top of that, unlike the focused mode, the connections that active in diffuse mode are more expansive (over a wider area), thus allowing for connections between seemingly unrelated things (creating creative insight).

The new analogy is to think of it as an excavator - think of a digging machine. So when you are in focused mode, your brain is collecting this information, receiving information. In diffuse mode, it is placing that information elsewhere in the brain, organing and consolidating it, which also helps you to make sense of it.

You cannot go into diffuse mode by concentrating really hard, but it is the default mode when you aren't thinking about anything in particular. That is why it is important to take breaks when you have studied for a while, so that you can get out of focused mode and consolidate what you have learned, and the brain can be more creative with the new material.

Learning Difficult Things

Drinking coffee/tea (due to caffeine?) diminishes the daydreaming alpha brain waves - which is why it helps you concentrate. It's most effective for an hour, but the effects may last much longer.

It turns out that having a bit of noise can help you learn difficult things, because it causes the diffuse mode to pop up. As we know, we need the diffuse mode to help consolidate the information that we have learnt.

Memorising simple things (straightforward facts using focused mode concentration) doesn't tell you how well you can understand complex systems.

It takes time to understand complex systems (e.g. heart function, causes of WWII). Usually, this involves both the focused and diffuse mode - alternating between the two.

The focused mode is primarily centered near the front of the brain, in the pre-frontal cortex. The diffuse mode on the other hand involves a wider area - it's this extensive nature that allows for the creative insight, as noted above.

Your Environment

Even small changes in your environment can lead to big changes over time.

A cathedral, with its high ceilings and coloured glass, the way your voice echoes in the space, conveys that it is sacred.

The roar of the crowd at a live soccer game makes the difference of why people still go watch the match at the stadium, even when the view is better at home.

Apparently, a place with high ceilings allow people to think more freely and abstractly. In rooms with low ceilings - people focus on the specifics.

Hospitals are the same everywhere (pretty much), and considering what we know about how our environment affects us, it's very terribly designed. If you were worried about your health before entering, be more worried after your enter the hospital.

The lighting is usually dim, and it is outdoor light that promotes arousal.

Plus, the constant dim lighting that is always on - it messes with the cicadian rhythm.

There are generally no windows (especially if you are very sick and in the ICU), and windows to the outdoor promote healing - it is depressing when the window opens to a parking lot.

And the unpredictability - there can be random alarms going on to signal an emergency, and yes, it alerts the nurses and doctors, but it also alarms the patient trying to rest and recover.

There is no privacy. You can get disturbed at any time of day for whatever reason - for them to check your vitals, or draw blood, or some other invasive procedure.

The meals are probably the worst in terms of nutritional value. And we know that you need to have good nutrition to be strong and healthy.

The Changing World

The world changes constantly. You need to take a big picture view of the opportunities that are available today and will come tomorrow - and in today's world for example, technology, math, science is key, the way horsemanship was until recent times when the internal combustion engine was invented and automobiles and other vehicles came into existence.

Match your aspirations with the opportunities that are available today.

Yes, we all have our own interests and passions. But we can also broaden our passions - learning new things that may not be comfortable for us. We should work to broaden our passions.

Mindshift (the course) promises to provide a framework for this change.

Natural Passions and Gender

It turns out that girls and boys have (on average) the same math and science ability. Testosterone has no effect on it; what it affects is verbal ability. So by comparison, boys will likely feel that they are better at math and science, since their verbal ability is weaker. But on the other hand, girls will feel that they are better at the language-oriented subjects because they are better at the verbal ability than math and science.

Because of this, the self image forms that lead boys to think that they are better at math and science, and girls think they aren't as good, and as they continue to develop what they are good at, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Boys think their passion is in the math and sciences while girls think it is in language-oriented subjects.

The advice of "follow your passion" usually means doing what is easiest for you, but as it turns out, when things are difficult, that's when we learn better than if it was easy.

Our passions develop around what we are good at - but it takes time for us to be good at things.

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