Barbara Oakley, who earlier in life was a self-confessed “mathphobe” now describes herself as an “educator, writer, engineer.” She excelled at humanities courses in high school and college, but failed at math and science. Yet, when the occasion arose much later in her life in which she needed to acquire basic technical competency, she set about applying the skills she had once used in learning Russian to the serious study of mathematics. She is now a distinguished professor of engineering!
She has stated that if she could do it, anyone can do it—armed with a strong desire and with some helpful study skills, which she teaches especially online and in her various books.
Dr. Oakley is a best-selling author of several books for the general public, focusing especially on learning and developing one’s full potential. Her earlier popular-level books focused on the connection between neuroscience and social pathology. She is also the co-editor of two professional volumes on bioengineering and sustainability. Her most recent books are:
- Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn, co-authored with Beth Rogowsky, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Tarcherperigee, 2021.
- Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens, co-authored with Terry Sejnowski and Alistair McConville, Tarcher-Penguin, August 2018.
- Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, TarcherPerigee 2017.
- A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), Tarcher-Penguin, July 2014. A New York Times best-seller.
Dr. Oakley is Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Minnesota; Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario; Visiting Scholar at the University of California San Diego; and co-developer and instructor (with Terrence Sejnowski) of Coursera’s highly successful MOOC on “Learning How to Learn.” Her academic research focuses on the complex intersection between neuroscience and social behavior.
Fred Bech conducted this interview with Dr. Oakley back in 2017, but link rot being what it is, that interview has disappeared from its original source and is no longer accessible via the search engines. We are therefore reissuing it here at Expensivity, where Fred hangs his hat, lightly adapting the interview to the present (such as by referencing Dr. Oakley’s latest work). Our hope is that this interview will especially help readers who for years have struggled with math and see this struggle as a deal killer for their business and entrepreneurial success. The world of money, finance, and business requires precise numerical skills. This interview demonstrates that those skills are readily in reach regardless of one’s background.
Learn more about Dr. Oakley’s original and wide-ranging work from her personal website.
Barbara Oakley Interview
Thank you very much, Dr. Oakley, for agreeing to do this interview with us.
Your own personal story is almost as fascinating as your work. You have recounted some of it in your books, which we will come to in a moment. However, we would like to begin by asking you about the backstory, as it were.
When and where were you born? What did your parents do for a living? In what religious faith were you raised, if any? Where did you obtain your undergraduate education?
I was born in Lodi, California. My father was a veterinarian who specialized in cattle—there were many farms and ranches in the area back then. My earliest memories involve accompanying dad on “calls” to help fix sick cows—I was probably around three years old at the time. I remember sitting in the calves’ manger, looking up and stroking their happy little noses as we all chomped down together on the pellets known as “Calf Manna.” I still love the grassy-anise smell and would probably sprinkle Calf Manna on my salads if I had some!
Dad kept catching brucellosis—a common disease in cattle that can be deadly in humans. Finally, his doctor told him that if he didn’t quit working with cows, he’d die. So he rejoined the military (he’d been a bomber pilot during WWII), and became a base veterinarian. Eventually, he went to MIT to get a master’s degree in food technology—he was put in charge of the Air Force program that was creating food for the astronauts. My mother was a housew—later, she helped my father run the veterinary clinics he built after he retired from the military.I’m often surprised at how often people believe something just because the other people they know believe it.
What all this meant was that I grew up moving all around the United States—I had moved 10 times by the time I hit tenth grade. It can be difficult to move when you’re in your teens—social cliques have already formed, and when you’re the new kid, it can be hard to find your niche among the other kids. I became used to being something of an outsider. I didn’t realize it then, but this was a valuable skill—I learned to be able to tolerate not thinking the same way as everyone else. I’m not saying that I enjoyed the feeling—it’s just that I got used to it and can tolerate it today when logic leads me to a belief that is different from others’ beliefs. I’m often surprised at how often people believe something just because the other people they know believe it. Even when you show them the clear error in their thinking, they prefer to just stick with what everyone else they know believes.
I was raised a Unitarian. My first undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Slavic Languages & Literature. My second undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Sciences in Electrical Engineering.
You were a self-described “mathphobe” who was much more comfortable with nature, the arts, and the humanities than you were with math and science. Would you please sketch in the story briefly for our readers just up until your decision to study engineering?
I wasn’t a “natural” with math—although I loved to read. When I was about seven years old, we moved from Lubbock, Texas, to Chelmsford, Massachusetts. They were far ahead of me in the multiplication tables. I couldn’t catch up—was always plodding along behind everyone else, and more than that, had no interest. I did badly in math and science all through my K–12 education. In point of fact, I loathed it. I remember being hauled in front of the Dean of Students in eighth grade because I just kept reading a book in math class. I told the Dean that math was completely useless, and there was no way in hell anyone could ever get me to have anything whatsoever to do with it.
Since I thought I couldn’t learn math and science, and hated it anyway, I turned to language. I grew up in a resolutely monolingual family, and I couldn’t help but look in awe at people who were bilingual. It seemed somehow magical. I couldn’t afford to go to college, but there was one way I could learn a language and actually get paid for it. That was, to join the Army. So I enlisted right out of high school to learn Russian at the Defense Language Institute. Russian was quite different from English, which was what I wanted.
Tell us about your decision to study engineering? What finally caused you to “pull the trigger” to embark on that course of study? Did you have deep misgivings? Or did you know deep down that it was the right move from the start? How difficult was this course of study for you initially? Did it get easier over time? What wisdom did you learn from that time that you could impart to students reading this interview and currently struggling with math, science, and engineering?
These experiences were invaluable. They taught me that if I “followed my passion” without care for what the world was looking for, I could end up trapped in jobs I disliked.
While in the military, I received an ROTC scholarship that allowed me to go to the university and complete that first degree in Slavic Languages and Literature. I did well in my studies and thought I was on track to be commissioned in Military Intelligence.
No such luck. As I discovered, Military Intelligence was becoming filled with women just like me who loved language, but had no interest in math or science. So the Army decided to commission me in the Signal Corps—a heavily technological area that demanded a good math and science background. I was horrified—thought it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. And I was terrible at my job. Eventually, I asked to be switched to another, less technologically oriented job. I found myself pushing papers as a faceless administrator. In some ways, this was even worse than my original assignment.
These experiences were invaluable. They taught me that if I “followed my passion” without care for what the world was looking for, I could end up trapped in jobs I disliked. The military was a great experience for me, but at the same time, I also had to live at the whim of military decisions. I wanted to have more control over my life.
I realized that the West Point engineers I’d worked with in the military had great problem-solving skills, as well as knowledge of a subject area—engineering—that had recruiters pounding at their door. I thought: “Why don’t I see if I can learn engineering when I get out of the Army?” It seemed like crazy-think at the time, given how bad I was at anything technological or analytical.
I had no idea whether I could retrain myself. My first year or so at the university, I was terrified. The studying was horribly difficult, especially at the beginning. I took three instead of four courses each semester, so I could spend the time to learn the material well. And I started at a very low level—remedial high school algebra. Those were two important approaches that were very helpful as I began to retool my brain. Gradually, I began to improve.
Sometimes I would take a semester or two off from the engineering studies to go off on exciting adventures like working as a translator on Soviet trawlers (above right), or working at the South Pole Station as a radio operator (left). That actually made it harder for me to succeed—I struggled to get back into the swing of things each time I returned. But the adventures were so exciting that I couldn’t resist the opportunities.
Your education in engineering all happened before you had done the research about learning that crystallized in the principles you have articulated so well, especially in your two most recent books, such as shifting between focused and diffuse attention modes, practicing recall vs. re-reading, the importance of practice, and, above all, the discovery that learning is fun. How do you think you were able to succeed without having these principles explicitly in mind? Do you think that on some level you already knew these things intuitively?
Chunking was what gave me a toehold to gradually begin succeeding in my studies of math and science, even though I was doing a lot of other things wrong in my studying.
I did a LOT of things wrong when I was trying to learn math and science as an adult—I had no magical intuition. I would reread pages over and over again, underlining and highlighting—which we now know to be very unhelpful. I would bang my head against a problem for hours, getting more and more frustrated, hating the material. I didn’t know that I could have—quite literally—walked away and it would have been much more helpful in opening up other learning modes (the “default mode network”) of the brain.
You may say, “Well, we’re often told to take a break when we’re frustrated—why didn’t you just follow that advice?” Here’s why: We’re also often told that we only succeed by being persistent. In other words, whenever I gave up in frustration, I felt like a quitter. My studies were often exercises in demoralization.
The only thing I had going for me as an adult learner was that I’d learned how to learn a language. I’d discovered that if I practiced enough with certain Russian words, phrases, conjugations, and the like, they’d come naturally to my mind. I didn’t know that that same “practice makes perfect” technique is essential for acquiring expertise in any subject—it relates to the vitally important concept of chunking. Chunking was what gave me a toehold to gradually begin succeeding in my studies of math and science, even though I was doing a lot of other things wrong in my studying.
I remember once, after having spent several hours trying to understand a concept on one page, I finally turned the page to discover an image where it all suddenly made sense. If only I’d turned the page earlier, glancing through the chapter ahead of time to get a feel for what the chapter was about! I remember thinking: “Why doesn’t someone write a book about how to learn effectively—something based on what we know from science about how the brain learns?” I was very aware that the way I was studying wasted a lot of my time, and often left me feeling very frustrated. I was blindly feeling my way forward in learning how to learn effectively.
We are especially intrigued by the story of your time on the Russian trawler in the Bering Sea. That must have been an amazing experience! You have written a book about it, Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler (Washington State University Press, 1996), which was your first book, in fact. Would you please give us a thumbnail of that time, recounting one or two particularly memorable anecdotes from that experience? We expect many of our readers will want to know, among other things, what it was like being a woman on board that ship?
I was working on my engineering degree, and heard about a company that needed Americans to serve as Russian translators aboard Soviet trawlers off the Pacific Northwest Coast and up on the Bering Sea. So I went out for two fishing seasons—about a year altogether.
As an American woman, I could get away with far more than the Russian women. Russian men of that time could be obnoxiously macho in a way that few American women of today have any experience with. It was fun for me to tweak Russian guys in a way that Russian women weren’t able to do. The guys were always so surprised that anyone, much less a woman, would question their macho-ness—it was very easy to get their goat. They were generally good fellows, though—simply a product of their time and upbringing. (Aren’t we all?)The guys were always so surprised that anyone, much less a woman, would question their macho-ness—it was very easy to get their goat.
The Russians were convinced I was a spy because of my military background and, well, I didn’t go hopping into bed with them, despite the invitations. I really wasn’t a spy, but nothing I could say would ever dissuade them. But I did a good job translating, so they were happy. My captain would say affectionately to me, “Слишком много знать, пора убивать.” That means: “You know too much, it’s time to kill you.”
Do you still keep up your Russian these days?
Sadly, no. I use it very little, although I’d love to have the opportunity to spend six months or a year in Russia to bring it back. My life is filled to the brim every second now with exciting new projects I’m working on. On the side, however, I am trying to learn some Spanish. Our son-in-law is from Chile, and our grandchildren will be bilingual. I’d like to understand a little of what our grandchildren are saying when they slip into their father’s mother tongue. 😉
Together with your colleague, the well-known physicist and neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski, nowadays you run one of the world’s most successful MOOCs. The course is offered through Coursera, and is entitled “Learning How to Learn.” Could you tell us why you think this particular MOOC has been so outstandingly successful?
One of the most important aspects underlying the course’s success, I believe, is that I did almost everything myself.
It’s a little like making a moonshot. A lot of big and small things all combined to make a course that people seem to get great use out of, and to really love. I’m tremendously shy, but apparently, that comes across on the videos as sincerity. Terrence Sejnowski is a legendary neuroscientist—his insights and gravitas added a lot to the course.
One of the most important aspects underlying the course’s success, I believe, is that I did almost everything myself. For example, I didn’t farm the editing off to a video production group. As I’ve come to discover, video production groups often have ideas about how to edit that are very conducive to burning through a lot of money, even if they’re not very conducive to learning. Because I did the video editing, our course was produced for less than $5000—the money was used to buy a camera, teleprompter, lights, green screen, and sound equipment.
Because I did the video editing myself, I came to realize the vital importance of video editing. Every few seconds something interesting is happening visually in our course—sometimes I’d spend five hours on a minute of video. We scripted everything to make every second count, and there’s lots of humor. Our visual humor in particular translates well across languages and cultures—some two-thirds of our nearly two million learners are from outside North America.Our visual humor in particular translates well across languages and cultures—some two-thirds of our nearly two million learners are from outside North America.
The course is built on solid research, which people really appreciate. There’s plenty of metaphor, so we could delve deep into scientific insights and make the information understandable by laypeople.
So, in essence, many different factors contributed to the course’s success. If we’d gotten any one of those factors wrong, I don’t think the course would have become the major international hit it has become.
One of the later chapters in you new book, Mindshift, is entitled “MOOC-Making: A View from the Trenches.” It is brilliantly written, and the story it tells is enthralling. That chapter alone was worth the price of the book! Could you briefly share with our readers some of the highlights of how you got involved with the “Learning How to Learn” project, and how you essentially taught yourself to make a MOOC?
Before the MOOC-making process began, I wrote the manuscript for the book A Mind for Numbers, which was about how to learn effectively in math, science, and other subjects. My publisher, Penguin-Random House, was wonderful about allowing me to have a lot of illustrations.
But I wanted more, visually—much more. I knew that the people I most wanted to help learn are often not into reading books, even while they’ll happily watch videos. I’d been hearing about MOOCs, and thought that was an ideal complement to learning from a book.
Terrence Sejnowski (right), who wrote the foreword to A Mind for Numbers, became interested in MOOC-making, as well. Terry opened the doors for us to do a MOOC together through the University of California, San Diego, and Coursera. Coursera, incidentally, is the biggest and best of the MOOC providers—they work with only a few elite institutions. So, the doors that Terry opened were very significant.
When Terry got approval for me to begin work on the MOOC, I felt like the dog that had just caught the car. I had no idea what I was doing. I kept trying to think of an approach that could convey the kinds of metaphorical, highly pictorial images I wanted to convey. A friend of mine, Christopher Kobus, who is an engineering professor and colleague at Oakland University, suggested that I use “green screen” techniques. I didn’t even know what the term “green screen” meant. Thank goodness, I also wasn’t knowledgeable enough to realize that green screen is considered an advanced videography technique—the territory of pros.I learned everything I needed to know to make the MOOC, including how to edit video, by watching online videos.
I googled “how to set up a green screen studio,” along with “lighting a video studio.” I learned everything I needed to know to make the MOOC, including how to edit video, by watching online videos. My husband Phil and I bought some equipment, and we headed into production. Phil was the man behind the camera—he also coached me through my diva moments. (“I just can’t do this,” I’d pout after the umpteenth flub. “Yes you can,” he’d calmly reply.)
My first videos were horrible. I was terribly nervous, and often looked as if I were staring at the barrel of a gun. We reshot the first couple of videos several dozen times, over a month. There was no one to coach us, so I just had to figure out what worked on video by trial and error. How fast should I speak? Where should I put my hands? How deeply should I go into the science? Gradually, I fell into a rhythm that felt right—a combination of humor, swift-moving video editing, and plenty of metaphor, along with the solid science. I edited to keep my own interest—which meant that I had to put a lot into the editing, because I get bored pretty easily.
Halfway through production, I remember looking at my husband and asking, “Do you think anyone is even going to watch this?” Little did we know.
How do you see the future of MOOCs in higher education? What do they do well? Where do they leave room for improvement? Where are they likely never to be particularly effective? Do you think they will continue to expand? If so, will it be to the detriment of traditional, campus-based colleges and universities? Or do you see some sort of synergy between the new, virtual and the traditional, face-to-face forms of instruction?
My younger daughter is an extraordinary writer. Once, in junior high school, she wrote a tremendous essay that she really poured her heart into. I was so proud of her! It was thoughtful, deep, beautifully written—really, it couldn’t have been better. Although I’m an award-winning, nationally recognized author, this wasn’t hyperbolic mommy-ness—I really do know good writing when I see it.
My daughter got a C− on the essay. No comments, just a lousy grade. My guess is that the teacher didn’t even bother to read it. I wanted to helicopter-mom right in and argue. But my daughter would have none of it. I wanted to respect her wishes, so I regretfully stayed out of it. For 10 years, my daughter carried with her the idea that she was a bad writer—all because of that one, uncaring teacher.MOOCs could do a great deal to improve teaching by replacing the substandard teachers—the kind that students would do anything to avoid.
So, when people tell me that face-to-face is always better than online teaching, it’s clear they have little idea of what teachers can be like in the real world. It’s a statistical truism to say that half of all teachers are below average—and oftentimes, even average isn’t that good. MOOCs could do a great deal to improve teaching by replacing the substandard teachers—the kind that students would do anything to avoid. This idea understandably has a made a lot of university professors, especially the ones who don’t teach well, very nervous.
A study by the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based National Bureau of Economic Research found that a student can learn as much as three times more from a very good teacher as opposed to a poor teacher. In fact, good teachers can provide as much as a $400,000 lifetime bonus to a student’s income. If the bottom five percent to eight percent of teachers were replaced with average teachers, the added benefit to the economy would be over $100 trillion dollars. The country would simultaneously vault to near the top of international science and math rankings.
MOOCs can’t teach everything. But they can teach many, if not most, subjects, and can often teach them better than a humdrum face-to-face teacher can. One recent study at MIT, for example, found that students prefer a MOOC—it provides for more flexibility and less stress.In China, students anywhere in the country can take MOOCs for college credit. This is such an obvious benefit for students that even the US is slowly beginning to move in that direction.
Right now, students internationally are often drowning in debt. They can have terrible scheduling difficulties. Many times they are faced with either taking a known bad professor, or not getting their degree. Some universities are waking up to the fact that MOOCs are a good solution to many of these problems. In China, students anywhere in the country can take MOOCs for college credit. This is such an obvious benefit for students that even the US is slowly beginning to move in that direction.
You might say: “What about the low completion rates?” The “completion rate argument” often seems to be raised professors who are nervous about the competition that MOOCs will provide. I would venture to guess that the “completion rates” of textbooks—that is, students’ having finished every chapter and taken a comprehensive test on the material—is even lower than that of MOOCs. But nobody goes around saying textbooks are bad because of low completion rates.
Right now shopping malls are falling empty because of the advances of online retail. I believe we’ll slowly begin seeing the same phenomenon at universities. It won’t be immediate, but it will eventually happen.
The team at Expensivity consists of educators. As such, we are extremely interested in all innovative ideas about how education can work better in the future than it has in the past. In fact, I myself am an example of the “second-chancers” you write about (receiving my Ph.D. in my late 50s!). The team at Expensivity is very much in sympathy with your aims and, needless to say, we find your books themselves highly engaging and interesting.
That said, we like to play the Devil’s advocate from time to time, and therefore would like to put a few tougher questions to you, along with the more sympathetic ones. They are of a philosophical nature, if you will, but we think they are important. So, here goes.
Your four books for a popular audience (leaving aside your memoir about the Russian trawler) fall naturally into two groups:
Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, Prometheus, 2008.
Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Co-Dependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts, Prometheus, 2011.
Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, TarcherPerigee 2017.
A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), Tarcher-Penguin, July 2014. A New York Times best-seller.
Note that because this interview was conducted in 2017, two subsequent books by Dr. Oakley were not included for discussion: (i) Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn, co-authored with Beth Rogowsky, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Tarcherperigee, 2021; (ii) Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens, co-authored with Terry Sejnowski and Alistair McConville, Tarcher-Penguin, August 2018.
The first group (I) is primarily about how the neurosciences relate to various forms of social pathology, while the second group (II) is about the neurosciences and learning as an aspect of realizing one’s full human potential.
We would like to ask you about the difference between the two groups in a moment, but first, let us ask you about what all four books have in common: namely, the connection between neuroscience and behavior.
Now, you are careful throughout your work to avoid the extremes of neuro-reductionism and genetic reductionism. You stress that human behavior is complicated and that both nature and nurture have important parts to play in its shaping. But since that is the case, it seems to us there is a bit of a disconnect between the neuroscience and the more informal clinical and narrative aspects of your four books.
So, here is our first question: Do you see the neuroscience as truly useful from a clinical point of view? Could you give us an example?
Well, I’m not a clinician, so I can’t truly say what’s useful from a clinical point of view. But purely from a layperson’s perspective, neuroscience is having an increasing effect on how we act and live.
For example, we used to think that you were born with all the neurons you’d ever have, that it was inevitable that as you grew older, neurons would continue to die off, you’d lose the ability to learn the older you got, and, well, it was pretty depressing.
Fortunately, neuroscience has shown that those earlier assumptions about how the brain worked are dead wrong. In fact, new neurons are being born every day in the hippocampus—an important part of the brain for memory and learning. If you continue to learn, even in advanced maturity, you help those new neurons to survive, thrive, and grow. We didn’t know that before—in fact, it was “common knowledge” that older people couldn’t learn well at all.Neuroscience has shown that when we even just think about a subject we don’t like, it causes pain in the insular cortex—the pain centers of the brain.
It’s easy to think that we’ve always known intuitively what neuroscience is showing us, but that’s not at all true. Consider, for example, procrastination. Psychology has put forth all sorts of reasons for procrastination—for example, that we procrastinate because we’re afraid of success. Well, it’s hard to disprove such an assumption, and it can be even harder to take constructive action based on that theory. But neuroscience has shown that when we even just think about a subject we don’t like, it causes pain in the insular cortex—the pain centers of the brain. Knowing that, we can take all sorts of useful steps, such as those of the Pomodoro technique, to help lead us past the pain.
Those are indeed interesting examples! But we would like to continue along this line of inquiry for a bit longer, if you don’t mind.
In A Mind for Numbers, you stress the importance of practice for learning. You write: “Practice helps build strong neural patterns” (p. 78).
But how is this really an advance over what Aristotle has to say in Book II, Chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics?
Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do excellences arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit. [emphasis added]
Or, indeed, how is it an advance over the distillation of the traditional wisdom handed down from Antiquity into the popular maxims that we were all taught at our mother’s knee?: “Practice makes perfect”; “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice”; and so on.
It just seems to us as though the neuroscience is there mainly to provide legitimation for what everybody knows already. But does it really provide such legitimation? Why is such legitimation even necessary? How would you respond to such concerns?
If practice makes perfect, when should I quit? Should I ever quit? If I just study relentlessly for five years, 14 hours a day, will that make me into a concert pianist? Or will it just give me carpal tunnel syndrome? If I study with insane intensity to become an engineer, will that make me a great engineer? Or will it just make me into someone who can rapidly solve math problems, but who can’t think creatively and flexibly about greater societal concerns?Understanding issues such as how our brains consolidate new information when in the default mode, and many other neural phenomena, help us to go far deeper in advancing our ability to learn than canned, sometimes contradictory maxims.
Understanding issues such as how our brains consolidate new information when in the default mode, and many other neural phenomena, help us to go far deeper in advancing our ability to learn than canned, sometimes contradictory maxims.
In Evil Genes, you discuss the connection you perceive between neuroscience and personality disorders of various kinds.
Now, on p. 328, you admit there is such a thing as “top-down control,” which seems like a technical term for the common experience of exercising willpower. And, indeed, hasn’t the central objective of traditional moral education, as exercised by parents and teachers from time immemorial, always been precisely to reinforce the ability of the maturing child to obtain greater conscious control over one’s impulses? Some of us can even remember receiving a letter grade on our report cards in elementary school in the category of “self-control”!
Given all of that, isn’t there a grave danger that attributing so much causal influence to “the brain” and to “genes” will do just the opposite? That is, by providing people with personality disorders with yet another excuse for their bad behavior (the last thing they need!), doesn’t all the science-talk risk undermining the very self-control that they need more than anything else?
The goal of science is to explain and understand. I’m rather a fan of science, and I’m afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy making stuff up that didn’t fit the facts. Sadly, people with personality disorders will find the excuses they are looking for regardless of what I might write. Saying I shouldn’t use that kind of “science-talk” is little like saying “You’re saying that people who are missing their hands can’t write in the usual fashion very well. You shouldn’t be saying that. You’ll discourage people who are missing their hands, at the very time that hands are what they are most in need of.” The bottom line is that if certain personality-disordered individuals are missing key aspects of self-control, there’s no way for either them or me to wish it into being.
In Cold-Blooded Kindness, you discuss a battered woman who ended up murdering her husband. You explore the case in fascinating (if horrifying) detail, and you are to be saluted for the objective and unbiased way you deal with the facts (as well as your talent for involving the reader in the story).
Here is our question, though. As is well known, the French have a saying: “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner” [to understand everything is to excuse everything]. Do you believe that is true? Do you think all the neuroscience you so lovingly describe ultimately implies a world in which moral responsibility of individuals for their actions ought to be regarded as an outmoded superstition to be overcome?
If so, how do we get along without morality? What takes its place? Science? Politics? Art? Something else?
I believe that to understand everything is to be forewarned. There are some extraordinarily dangerous people in society who, due to both genetic and environmental pulls, will behave immorally. This in no way absolves them of their immorality. In many cases, the only thing ordinary people can do is to be aware that these kinds of people are out there—and one of their key manipulative tools is taking advantage of people’s empathy, compassion, and good nature.
Surprisingly often, the “obvious” thing in helping others is in fact harmful. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. (You are right in that aphorisms often do contain great truths.)
You probably took a lot of heat for the things you say about some women’s own responsibility in cases of domestic abuse. Is that correct? What do you say to those who would charge you with “blaming the victim”?
The victim is us—all of us. So yes, I do blame the victim. We are often the ones who are guilty of allowing our empathy and good intentions to blind us into allowing such evil to occur.
Surprisingly, I haven’t gotten a lot of pushback about women’s own responsibility in some cases of domestic abuse. I think people who disagree don’t usually read my books.
The shift from the topics of your first two books—on personality disorders and co-dependency, respectively—to those of your latest pair of books—on learning how to learn, in math and science, and more generally—seems like a pretty big change to us. There may be an interesting story behind it. If so, would you mind sharing with us the reason for this fairly dramatic change in emphasis?
Fifteen years ago, when I first started working on the tongue-in-cheek titled Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, I was curious about what science—especially neuroscience—might have to say about “mean” people.
But there came the point where I’d had enough. Writing about nasty, sometimes downright evil people can be depressing. And when it comes to the good intentions on the way to hell, I’ve also found readers can have surprising trouble wrapping their minds around the idea that attempts to do good might be harmful. It’s not a concept that most people are exposed to nowadays, when compassion is king. As an author, I came to feel like I was swimming against the zeitgeist.
One day about five years ago, one of my students asked me how I’d changed my brain to go from mathphobe to eventually become a professor of engineering. I thought, “Gee, I should write a book about that.”
It was a real surprise to me to discover how much I could contribute to education by bringing practical insights from neuroscience into popular view. Also, it helped that I wasn’t just talking theoretically about how to grasp tough concepts like those of vector calculus or thermodynamics. After all, I had learned those concepts myself. Students can tell the difference between someone whose knowledge about how to learn is largely theoretical and based on psychology, for example, and someone who has walked the walk of graduate-level engineering training, and who has taught in that area for years. Many educators are not professionals in STEM, so they just don’t understand what it takes to learn well in those kinds of subjects, although they think they do.
Anyway, in the end, I discovered that writing about learning is a much more rewarding and positive experience than writing about people like Hitler.
Once again in your most recent book, Mindshift, you reveal a real independent streak, something that we have perhaps grown unused to seeing in today’s academic environment where groupthink seems to be the order of the day. For one thing, you discuss work showing that standards in social psychology research are extremely lax (pp. 71–73). And it is not just that results cannot be replicated; rather, it is that some researchers do not even accept the norm that such work ought to be replicated! You rightly take such persons severely to task for abdicating a fundamental responsibility of any work that aspires to the high title of “scientific.” And once again, we are betting you have gotten some push-back from your social psychology colleagues on this. Are we right? Are there any specific cases you could discuss, without naming names?
I’m not saying anything new when I point out that professors often work within a sheltered cocoon of fellow academics who think pretty much exactly like them.
I think people who read my books are expecting real science. Perhaps this is why there hasn’t been much by way of pushback. I do agree about the challenges with today’s academic groupthink. Sometimes I’m boggled at discussions with researchers who are clearly setting up their experiments to find what they want to find rather than what the data truly reveal. I’m not saying anything new when I point out that professors often work within a sheltered cocoon of fellow academics who think pretty much exactly like them, so it’s sometimes hard for them to tell when their thinking is going off the rails.
Finally, the problem you identify in Mindshift discussed in the previous question and answer has troubling implications that go far beyond the realm of social psychology. You yourself cite the fact that similar problems plague the whole field of teacher training, where there simply are no solid data on what works and what doesn’t. But the same problems seem to plague our society on a much broader scale.
You also say, in effect—and this really activated our antennae—that “good intentions” are not enough (p. 72). Elsewhere, you insist that “competence is key” to success in one’s career (p. 134).When you have actually worked in that kind of environment, it gives a very different insight into the “oppressive” nature of some ideas.
All of this perhaps ought to be unremarkable common sense, but in today’s politically charged academic climate, such thoughts are practically heretical. What about the “oppressive” nature of such ideas? How do you square such ideas with affirmative action? How do you square them with the notion that reason itself is a “phallogocentric, intersectional” construct whose only purpose is to support the current unjust social order?
First, have you actually encountered such criticisms on campuses where you teach or have lectured? If not, what would you say in reply, if you did?
Most people in the US have never worked or lived in a totalitarian environment where people can disappear if they say or even just think the wrong thing. When you have actually worked in that kind of environment, it gives a very different insight into the “oppressive” nature of some ideas.
I volunteered for five years in an inner urban school district. The kids were terrific! But it’s tough to ask any kid to succeed in the type of system those kids have around them. Affirmative action can be a double-edged sword, because it makes do-gooders feel they are doing something helpful, even if what is actually being done can be making the problem worse. I created ”Learning How to Learn” in part to help give disadvantaged students around the world the critical insights and self-empowerment that can allow them to succeed within systems that can so easily allow them to fail.I feel that to say that reason itself is a “phallogocentric” construct is outrageously disrespectful to women.
On other matters, I feel that to say that reason itself is a “phallogocentric” construct is outrageously disrespectful to women.
To wrap things up, would you summarize the key ideas you wish to convey in Mindshift? What is the main message you would like a reader of the book—and a reader of this interview—to take away?
Think independently. Don’t follow the crowd, even if it makes you feel more comfortable to do so. Be exposed to ideas that make you feel uncomfortable, and try to understand where those ideas are coming from. Above all, keep learning—you can change and grow far more than you might think!
What are your plans for the future? Is there a new book in the works? A new MOOC? Something yet undreamt? Where would you like to see your life and career in five years? . . . 10 years?
It’s unbelievable that students worldwide will spend anywhere from 10 to 18 years in educational institutions, while never taking a single science-based course on effective learning. My next goal is to provide the materials to make such courses possible.
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. It’s been a joy and will provide an enlightening experience for our readers.