And a lot of very relevant subjects, as well, like psychology, even English. How did they teach so people could learn, and how did they learn themselves? And I also reached out to top cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. And my background also informed this. I’ve taught for several decades as an engineering professor, done active research in active learning. And so all of these things kind of combined together.
And what I found that I thought was very interesting was when I reached out to all these professors, a lot of the ones in the STEM disciplines in particular– Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math– used these approaches that might involve things like metaphor or analogy. But they were very embarrassed to say that, because other professors would kind of be like, oh, you’re dumbing things down. But it was actually something that all of these top professors used to more easily communicate the ideas. It was like this shared handshake. They all knew how to do it, but they didn’t realize these other top professors were using the same approaches.
So what I’m going to tell you now is I’m going to give you some insight. This, these, are the key ideas related to learning that all of these people have discovered. So first off, we know that the brain is really complicated. So what we’re going to do is simplify it. And you can simplify the brain’s operation into two fundamentally different modes.
First one is what I’ll call focused mode, and the second is what I’ll call the diffused mode. And this is actually– it relates to the default mode network and other related– there’s some 24 or 25 so far– neural resting states that have been detected. And so all of these states altogether, I’ll just call the diffused mode. And what can happen– I mean, our best way to really understand these two different modes is to use a metaphor. And the metaphor we’re going to use is that of a pinball machine.
And a pinball machine, you all know how it works. You just take the pinball and you pull back on the plunger, and a ball was boinking around on the rubber bumpers, and that’s how you get points. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to take that pinball machine, and we’re going to superimpose it on the brain. And you see the brain right here. Here’s the little ears, and there’s the nose right there.
And what we’re going to do, we’re going to take that pinball machine and we’re going to put it right on the brain. And there you go. There’s the pinball machine on the brain. And you can see how you can pull back on the plunger there, and you’ve got all these little pinballs in there, or the rubber bumpers, and they’re all very close together. So what happens is in focused mode-type thinking, like what I’m showing right here, you’ve got these close together bumpers, and you often have patterns that are already here.
For example, if you’ve already learned how to multiply, and you’re trying to do a multiplication problem, you would sit in focused mode, and you’ve got these patterns that are already there. And you think a thought, and it takes off, and it moves roughly around the rubber bumpers along the pathways it’s already been in before, that you’ve developed as a consequence of previous learning.
But what if the pattern you’re trying to think is something new? What if you already know about multiplication, but you’ve never encountered division before? So you’re trying to understand this idea. Or the concept of limits in calculus. How do you go at a completely new idea that you’ve never encountered before? Well, that’s where this other way the brain works, in diffused mode thinking, can actually be a benefit.
Now, take a look. Here’s the representative of the diffused mode. And it’s just an analogy, but it’s a very good one that helps us understand. Look at how far apart those rubber bumpers are. When you think a thought in diffused mode, the thoughts can range much more widely.
Now you can’t think in a tight-grain fashion to actually solve the particulars of a problem, but you can at least get to a new sort of way of thinking about things that you couldn’t have gotten if you were just in the focused mode. In fact, sometimes, when you’re trying to solve a really difficult problem, the worst thing you could do is just keep sitting there and focusing and focusing on it. Because you can be up on that part of the brain, so to speak, and yet you need to be in a completely different place.
So the best thing to do when you’re really stuck and frustrated on a problem is not to keep focusing on it. You actually need to get in a very different mode of thinking. And that’s what’s represented here. And so what this means practically for you is you’re sitting there, you’re working– hey, get out. Go for a run. Go down and have a– go take a shower if you need to. Or do something that really gets your mind totally off it.
Because when you’re in this mode, as long as your attention is focused on that problem, you’re still in this mode, and you can’t get to this way of solving things. So how can this play out for people? If you look at this guy right here– he was Salvador Dali, one of the most brilliant of the Surrealist painters of the 20th century. He’s shown here with his pet ocelot, Babou. And what Dali used to do is this. He’d sit in a chair when he had kind of an intractable problem with his paintings to solve.