April 29, 2016

Sponge of Knowledge Because 11 open projects are not enough and because I hate free time, I am taking a Coursera class on 'Learning How to Learn' for fun as well. Taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley of 'A Mind for Numbers' fame and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute, the idea is to learn better strategies for learning. In retrospect I should have taken this before beginning Bloc to turn me into a supersponge of knowledge.

There are a couple of ways of learning: diffuse and focused. Focused thinking follows established pathways - these can be superhighways if you need to reuse that path or gutters if you are stuck in a certain way of thinking. When we are concentrating on something, we are in Focused mode. We can easily make analogies and metaphors to help us understand new problems - we are comparing patterns and applying them.

The downside is that in focused mode, we have a hard time if we can't draw an easy analogy - it is not a great place to absorb new concepts and new ideas. New here implies some sort of radical departure.

Diffuse thinking is more relaxed. It might explain why some people feel like drugs open up their minds - existing pattern matching is relaxed. Diffuse thinking is a big picture perspective, though maybe one can argue it is still pattern matching, just from a wider set of patterns. Humans can make new neural pathways and connections easier in diffuse mode. However, we aren't tightly focused to solve a problem or get into the finer details of a concept - that is a job for focused mode.

It seems as if we can only be in one state at a time - focused or diffuse. They are mutually exclusive, at least in the human brain.

Squad Class goals

Reframe how we learn so we can learn better, especially math and science. Learn more deeply and effectively, with less frustration. We can also learn to hold our focus, embedding the material more deeply in the mind and master subjects better and prevent procrastination.

Focused and Diffuse Modes

Salvador Dali is discussed as regards his technique for creating new work. He would dangle a key as he sat in a chair, drifting into sleep. Once he passed out, he would drop the key and wake himself up, at which point he would get to work, collecting his diffuse thoughts. Similarly, Edison would play with ball bearings in his hand, and, similar to Edison, the dropped ball bearings woke him up and off he went to invent.


The mind needs to go back and forth between learning modes, especially with hard topics. To build mental structure, as with working muscles, we need to do a bit of work every day. Analogies provide powerful techniques for learning. Focused and diffuse modes exist with different advantages and disadvantages. And lastly, the mind needs to go back and forth between diffuse and focus modes while learning, in a manner similar to how we build up muscle strength. And as with muscles and the physical body, it appears that the mind is great at trying to save energy through referring to pre-existing routes for thoughts, and we have to push our mind to increase our potential, just as we have to up our resistance to build increasing amounts of muscle.

Learning, Defined

The brain consumes 10x the energy by weight of other parts of the body. What we have learned is that common processes in the brain like seeing are incredibly complex and beyond current computer abilities. This proves that we are not aware of how our brains work - the heavy lifting takes place in the background. We are only aware of a small amount of brain activity, so we rely on activity maps of the brain.

There are a million billion synapses! A synapse is 1/20th the width of a hair, so very small. Brain activity is dynamic and keeps changing over time, with new synapses being built and others being removed. So, how do memories stay stable? We aren't completely sure, but we do know that our brains are continuously updating. We wake up with a new mind each day. Shakespeare was right about how sleep can knit up the loose ends of the day into the cloth of your mind.

There is also www.brainfacts.org as a place to learn about the mind and current research.