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A Mind for Numbers

How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)

By Barbara Oakley
15-minute read
Audio available
A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley

A Mind for Numbers offers insight into the way our brains take in and process information. It outlines strategies that can help you learn more effectively, especially when it comes to math and science. Even if mathematical or scientific concepts don’t come naturally to you, you can master them with the right kind of dedication and perseverance – and this book will teach you how.

  • Anyone interested in math
  • Anyone interested in science
  • Anyone who wants to get better at studying and retaining information

Barbara Oakley is an engineering professor at Oakland University and a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. She’s written extensively about learning strategies, and her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal.

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A Mind for Numbers

How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)

By Barbara Oakley
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley
Synopsis

A Mind for Numbers offers insight into the way our brains take in and process information. It outlines strategies that can help you learn more effectively, especially when it comes to math and science. Even if mathematical or scientific concepts don’t come naturally to you, you can master them with the right kind of dedication and perseverance – and this book will teach you how.

Key idea 1 of 9

The human brain has two ways of thinking: the focused and the diffuse modes.

Imagine a flashlight with two settings: it can intensely focus its beam on one small area, or it can spread its light less powerfully, but more broadly.

Our brains work in a similar way. They can switch between two kinds of networks or functions.

First, there’s the focused mode. This is when we concentrate on information that’s already tightly embedded in our minds. We usually use the focused mode for concepts we already find familiar or comfortable.

Focused mode thinking is essential for studying math and science. We use it to direct our attention to solving problems using rational and analytical thought.

For example, you use focused mode thinking when you multiply numbers (assuming you already know how to multiply). If you’re studying a language, you might use it to incorporate the verb conjugation you learned last week.

Our second way of thinking is diffuse mode thinking. Diffuse mode is what happens when you relax your attention and let your mind wander a bit. We use it to get a “big picture” understanding of something.

Diffuse mode is also important for learning math and science. It allows you to gain new insights into problems you’ve been struggling with.

When trying to understand something new, it’s better to not focus on one thing. Use your “big picture” diffuse mode of thinking instead.

Consider this sentence: Thiss sentence contains threee errors. The first two errors – in spelling – are easily noticeable when using a focused approach.

But the third error? The third error – that the sentence is untrue because there is no third error – only becomes clear when we use the diffuse approach to consider the sentence more abstractly. Focused and diffuse thinking both have their purposes.

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