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KF #22. Nimble Learning Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

600: Scientific Strategies to Make Learning Stick with Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto

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Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto say: "Be an extreme learner. Treat learning like it's a mountain to climb."

Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto share practical insights on how to optimize your learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three simple tactics that drastically improve how we learn
  2. Why you want the learning process to be difficult
  3. How to get into the optimal mental state for learning

About Sanjay and Luke

Sanjay Sarma is the head of Open Learning at MIT. A professor of mechanical engineering by training, he has worked in the fields of energy and transportation; computational geometry; computer assisted design; and has been a pioneer in RFID technology. He has an undergraduate degree from IIT Kanpur as well as advanced degrees from Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley.

Luke Yoquinto is a science writer who covers learning and education, as well as aging and demographic change in his role as a researcher at the MIT AgeLab. His work can be found in publications such as The Washington Post, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. He is a graduate of Boston University’s science journalism program.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Sanjay, Luke, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Sanjay Sarma
Thanks very much.

Luke Yoquinto
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. So, maybe we’ll just go right off the bat. What’s the big idea behind the book Grasp?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, the big idea is that we, today, in learning, need to focus more on access and more on making content cognitively friendly, and we sort of have it backwards. We make stuff cognitively unfriendly, perhaps not intentionally, and then we struggle with access and inclusion, and we end up sort of weeding people out of the system.

Luke Yoquinto
And, in fact, we could go so far as to say all the things we do to “identify talent” sometimes can step on the cognitive process instead of make learning happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, can you share an example in terms of some cognitively unfriendly practices that we may be better off without?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, there’s a myriad. I mean, one very simple one is every lecture is 45 minutes, half an hour, an hour, and we bag our finger at a student who seems to lose interest. But, in fact, the way the brain works, you’re really taught to absorb material for more than 10 minutes or so, right there, right off the bat. And then we, for example, keep forgetting as something this learner, it’s their fault. Whereas, forgetting is very central to all of learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I’m intrigued. So, 10 minutes, already so much I want to dig into. And so, what’s sort of the best practice then? After 10 minutes, is there sort of a break or refresher or a mental pallet cleanser you’d recommend? Or what’s sort of the best practice?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, after 10 minutes, there are so many things you can do, but the first thing is, take a break. But then the other thing you want to do is actually do something called a testing effect. It turns out that if you’ve learned in the last 10 minutes, and if you personalize it a little bit, and say, “Well, now, what did you learn Pete? What is that? What does that promote?” It promotes learning. And then you can start the next chunk. Well, then there’s other stuff. Maybe, Luke, you can talk about that.

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah. The testing effect is sort of a big theme that comes up in the book. There’s something called the effortful retrieval, which is a major boon to long-term remembering. One of the key researchers we talked to for the book are Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, and they have really intriguing set of practices around retrieval and metacognition. And, basically, one of the big ideas is that when you forget an item to be remembered, it’s not just being lost to you. What’s happening is all the competing misconceptions and confusing little ideas around that item are also being forgotten. And then when you re-remember that item, the true memory, without those competing, conflicting, interfering associations comes back, and there’s a much stronger memory.

And so, one thing you can do with the pre-test before your big final exam, for instance, is you can force yourself to have what’s called an effortful retrieval that sort of strips away all these competing memory associations and you get left with a strong long-lasting memory.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, then is that the value in the forgetting there, is that that provides us that opportunity?

Sanjay Sarma
There’s a lot of value in forgetting. There’s value all the way down to the neurons, and all the way up to the things that Luke was talking about. So, the neuron level, what happens is that when you’re about to forget, you get reminded of something, essentially the brain establishes more physical neuronal pathways, which makes the memory firmer. So, that’s one thing. But then if you go up to the higher levels, you get rid of interfering memories, which was what Luke was talking about. So, the integrating memories go away, and you sort of re-establish your memory in a much cleaner way. So, there’s a whole variety of spectrum of benefits to just being able to forget something, and then to re-learn it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’d love to zoom in a little bit in terms of, so you’re playing a big game on a global stage, and when talking about sort of access and all kinds of cool impact there. I think about our listeners, specifically professionals, could you lay out what’s really at stake here for them in terms of if they’re learning optimally or sub-optimally? How significant is that impact?

Sanjay Sarma
Look, 21st century and I like to joke that the 21st century begins in 2021, right? I mean, COVID is this big reset. So, we are going to enter an economy in which learning is central. The half-life of skills is shorter, etc., future work, there’s enough stuff written about it. We are learning animals and we’re going to have to learn for the rest of our lives just to stay abreast. It’s just the way it is.

And so, the ability to learn and to apply these tricks is central. It’s sort of like imagine the way our education system is structured today, it’s sort of like telling someone you can exercise for the first four years of your life and then you’re ready for the rest of your life, as opposed to, you know, going to the gym three times a week. So, learning has got to become that, right? And Luke and I talk about it at some level in the book about how learning is very important.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, I really want to hear, you’ve got a story in the book about a law school in Florida that incorporated some cutting-edge learning strategies, and they saw a dramatic improvement in their bar exam passage rate. Can you share the story?

Luke Yoquinto
So, Pete, talk about the pre-testing effect that we were talking about earlier, that’s sort one-half of these wonderful researchers, the Bjorks, call desirable difficulties and the effortful retrieval that strips away these competing memory associations that lets you form a really long-term memory. The other half is called metacognition which is basically how we think about our own state of knowledge. So, let me just rewind and then we’ll catch it right back up to the law school, FIU Law School in Miami.

Metacognition. So, back in the ‘60s, for instance, researchers thought that what we know about our own thought was sort of a static measure, sort of like an engine oil dip stick, where you just kind of reach and you say, “I’m trying to get a sense of what I know about subject X. Here’s what it is.” But as the Bjorks, especially Robert, showed in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, it’s more like an active measure, it’s more like a speedometer, and how we gauge and how we know, in part, comes from how easy it is to summon that information in the moment.

And that introduces a number of biases. If you have some new fact open in a textbook right in front of you, that can lead you to believe that you’re going to remember that fact come test time. If you are seeing a fact in a true-or-false question, “Is hemoglobin the molecule in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to cells?” you might be able to answer that in a true or false, but then you might not be able to answer a point blank, “What is the molecule?”

And that false sense of knowing, the false sense that your knowledge of a given subject is not going to change, we know that’s not true, right? We know that forgetting happens over a certain curve, it’s called the forgetting curve. It’s one of the most well-known studies or effects in psychology.

And so, when you combine this metacognition stuff with effortful retrieval, you get what’s called desirable difficulties where you have these techniques you can apply while you’re studying that will sort of steel-plate memories for the long term. And one of the things that Louis Schulze, who was the head of sort of reinvigorating this FIU Law School program, did was he just went all in on these, and other really important study techniques, and just instituted a mandatory class for all first year law students at the school to start studying how to study using these techniques.

And so, prior to the beginning of this program, this program started in 2015, it was a respectable middling law school in Florida in terms of bar exam passage rates, kind of bounced around in the middle of the rankings. And they instituted this program where every student is taking this course on how to study as a fresh year law student. And then if you’re sort of in the bottom of your class, it’s mandatory that you continue in these studies in your second year. And then I think there’s another mandatory semester, or effectively mandatory, since everyone takes it because it works so well, in the third year.

But the effect was this program rocketed to the top of its rankings for the state in Florida. Now, it’s always number one and number two in terms of bar passage rates in Florida. And in terms of ultimate bar passage rates, which is the percentage of people who pass the bar within two years of graduation, it’s top 15 in the country. It’s remarkable.

And one of the big takeaways that we found from this story is you have all these students, these law students who, frankly, would’ve flunked out before this. And now with these techniques that are focused on making learning cognitively user-friendly, we’re retaining that talent that would’ve been wasted before.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s very encouraging and quite a testament. So, lay it on us, what are some of the most hard-hitting effective techniques that you think professionals should be using when they’re trying to learn new skills or get that flowing from them?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, here are a few. Do it in short sprints. And, actually, if you go to YouTube, go out to something on YouTube, you’ll find that, naturally, without perhaps understanding the sites, just because of our instincts, people have made their videos very short for a few minutes, 5-10 minutes. The second thing is, at the end of the video, apply the testing effect. So, ask yourself questions about the stuff you learned, right?

So, the third is space it out a little bit, wait some time, ask yourself the next day, do you remember it. Ask yourself a month later. I do this all the time. I’ll watch something, and then like a month later, I’ll try and recall. And rather than blame myself if I forget, I go, “Well, that’s an opportunity because now my brain is going to lit up, cleans the whistles a little bit.”

Here’s another one, very strange. Interleave, that’s part of the effort for learning, the desirable difficulties. What that means is switch. So, let’s say you’re learning two similar things and you’re solving problems or something, if you’re trying to answer questions, just answer questions. Answer questions about the first topic, then the second topic, then the first topic, and second topic, because it forces you to reload.

If you continuously answer questions about the first topic, you’re not reloading that information. You’ve got to sort of reload that program. So, do that. Bottom line is this, at some level, there’s an illusion of learning. We think we’re learning. There’s a lot of biases that Luke talked about, you know, stability, foresight, all that stuff. We won’t bore you with the details, but there’s an illusion of learning.

For example, if you read, read material and with a highlighter you just highlight everything, you feel like you learned because you became familiar with it but it’s an illusion. But when you’re actually learning, it feels effortful, and you go, “Oh, my God, I’m not learning because I’m struggling.” But, actually, you might be learning better. That’s a strange sort of optical illusion related to learning.

Luke, why don’t you add to that?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, that’s right. This applies not only to egghead kind of stuff. You could use this as an athlete. There’s a classic, classic study of, I think, it’s third graders doing the bean bag toss. The goal is to hit a target with a bean bag from three feet away. You have that experimental group throwing two feet away and four feet away but never three feet away. You have a control group throwing from three feet away.

And the experimental group who have never practiced the three-foot throw, on exam day everybody outperformed the kids who have been practicing at three feet. And you can take that to the driving range. This is a classic example that Bob [14:24] talks about. He’s a passionate golfer. If you’re just hitting the same club over and over again at the driving range, you’re not reloading the cognitive program for how to swing a golf club. You’re just kind of re-running the same program.

So, he recommends pull out the driver, hit a few, then switch, aim at a different distance with a different club, switch to a different club, keep switching, keep switching. And that applies whether you’re studying hard facts, whether you’re practicing the piano. The thing that makes it a difficulty is that, initially, you might be discouraged by the progress you make. And, in fact, you might actually make less progress initially than you otherwise would’ve. But in the long term, you’ll see the benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we’ve had David Epstein on the show talking about range and sharing some similar takeaways there. And so, what’s interesting is any topic or skill naturally has many sorts of subskills or subtopics under it. So, if I wanted to learn direct response copywriting, that’s of interest to me, there’s many subskills associated with it. Well, there’s the consumer research, and then there’s the intriguing headlines, and then there is trying to pull people in deeper over sort of a longer period of time with paragraphs.

And so, following these best practices, the best move would be to do short spurts of maybe 10 minutes of learning, and then do some effortful retrieval, and then maybe shift gears from one subskill or subtopic to another, and then back and forth.

Sanjay Sarma
That’s exactly right. That’s right you put it well, it’s the reloading. Can you reload that and can you reload this, and can reload that? Not load that and then keep doing the same thing, because it’s a reloading that’s the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Sanjay Sarma
And, yeah, you’re describing it right. By the way, the business of breaking down a complex task into subtasks, that’s something good teachers do, that’s what great coaches do. If you’ve noticed, like in tennis, the great coaches are not necessarily great players. Brad Gilbert coached Andre Agassi sometime but he wasn’t a great player, he was a good player. But because he appreciated what a great player was, he was able to sort of break it down, and there’s techniques for that as well, and then you want to do exactly what you described.

Luke Yoquinto
It’s funny how great players don’t always turn out to be great coaches. It’s often a pretty good player that turns out to be a great coach, which is really interesting.

Sanjay Sarma
In fact, it’s called the expert blind spot because you’ve got to be really, really sympathetic to the learner. But the expert has a blind spot, they go, “Why can’t you get that?” “Geez, because you’re an expert and I don’t, and you need to sort of understand what I don’t get.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And as a learner, that just sort of compounds the frustration in terms of it’s like, “I already know I’m not doing this well, and the fact that I’m apparently displeasing you is just making it worse for me.”

Sanjay Sarma
That’s right. That’s why professors exist, by the way, because parents fall into that trap all the time. I can tell you as a parent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then I’m curious. I know you’ve done some research on learning styles. But I want to know a bit about to what extent is that off base? And how should we think about sort of different modalities in terms of I’m watching a video, or I’m reading something, or I’m listening to something, or I’m trying it out on myself? How do we think about the styles and the best approach?

Sanjay Sarma
So, the problem with a lot of this learning stuff is that there are very subtle findings, and then sometimes people sort of run with them and turn them into something they’re not. So, the whole learning style things, there’s no basis, there’s no proof. It’s never been proven. If anything, it’s discredited as an approach. It’s not like some people learn better by hearing and some people learn better by video or something like that.

There is research into how to mix modalities. Various research. Myer is a professor who did a lot of work on that, so there is research on that. But the deeper concept, the deeper thought here is that this field that Luke and I talk about in this book has been explored in the past but it’s also led to a lot of faddishness which then falls into convenient buckets. And wouldn’t it be great if some people were just visual and we can just bucket them into visual and put them into visual classroom, and just sort of goes and runs amok a little bit?

So, that’s the whole problem with the learning styles argument. But, really, creating an excellent learning environment takes effort, takes thought, and it’s not that simple that you can just say that a person is a visual learner. And that’s sort of what we talk about in the book. It’s pretty nuanced, it’s pretty subtle, and you’ve got to understand it, and understand as much as possible. And also it’s changing fast. Right, Luke?

Luke Yoquinto
That’s right. Yeah, I would say that people take a lot of comfort in the learning style things sometimes, and that comfort that you think is not misplaced. The origin of that came from some of Howard Gardner’s work where he saw people who had different types of strokes, and a few differences have your language skills impacted but not your numbers skills at all. That helped him formulate his idea of multiple intelligences, which is still a really interesting idea, and it suggests that what might be measured in a standard sit-down IQ test or an SAT in no way encompasses your total powers as a learner.

And when we say learning styles isn’t something that we put much stock in, it’s not to say that you should take your SAT score as your sum total value as a learner. SAT scores and IQ tests capture a very narrow window probably of what people are capable of.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then this is helpful in terms of figuring out some best practices and some sort of mistaken ideas that may not have as robust research base behind. I just want to make sure, we talked about the phrase effortful retrieval a couple times. I’d love it if we could hit a few examples of that. I’ve heard of the Feynman blank page technique in terms of you’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to teach this to someone new,” or, “I’ve got a blank page. I’m just going to write down how this process works, or my true understanding of it.” What are some of the other approaches to do an effortful retrieval?

Luke Yoquinto
The simple answer, honestly, is if you’re in mid-career and you’re thinking about ways to improve, to be really blunt, there are programs online. MITx is the home team program, and we’re a little biased, will build in little quizzes and games and so forth to sort of force that in between video lectures and things like that. So, there are ways you can force that to happen just by choosing a program or choosing approach for your continuing education.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah. For example, you learn something, a book, you read a chapter, there are questions at the end. No one wants to take on these questions because they involve effort. You just skip over them. Answer the questions. Try it. I know it’s effortful but you learn better. So, that’s the testing effect, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Sanjay Sarma
So, it’s strange. The more tests you take, actually, the better you learn. And these are formative tests as opposed to summative. In other words, you’re taking a friendly test. It’s not like someone is grading you on that. So, that’s one very simple example. The other one we talked about is switch topic, switch topic, etc. So, these are examples. But a lot of the systems out there, sort of do it automatically as Luke was talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
And if you don’t have the advantage of some of those systems, or the games built in, or thoughtful questions at the end of the chapter, are there some self-prompts you might recommend for folks to engage with?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, make up a question, for example. Look for ways to break what you just learned, right? Actually, now I’m thinking of this as an academic professor and someone who teaches, and I learn a lot because of my research. There’s always some nagging doubt, and it takes a little bit of introspection to identify that doubt, and you’d rather bury it. But you identify it, you surface it, and you sort of psychoanalyze your doubt. That’s effortful. That actually helps a lot, and that’s something that’s become instinctive for me.

Pete Mockaitis
So, analyze the doubt.

Sanjay Sarma
Don’t bury it. Don’t just whitewash it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great in terms of where might this not work or not apply, or what about this counterexample that doesn’t seem to fit or follow the theory or the principle.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, try and apply it, that’s the other one. Try and apply. If you learned something, apply it. Let’s say it’s a management thing. You learned something in management, well, apply it.

Pete Mockaitis
Porter’s five forces. Okay. Sure.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, exactly. Porter’s five forces.

Pete Mockaitis
Take a look at the mobile phone industry and put those five forces on there. Okay. That’s good. Well, there’s a lot of conversation right now about, hey, in-person versus remote learning. I’m sure we can talk for hours about that alone and how it impacts children and folks in college. What are some key perspectives that we should bear in mind as professionals in this game?

Sanjay Sarma
Look, the elephant in the room is engagement in remote learning, okay? So, let’s leave that elephant out for the time being, let’s kick it out of the room, and come back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
It turns out that, if you look at the learning process, what makes learning work? Curiosity. What you talk about. Curiosity is incredible because if you’re curious, the brain releases dopamine, it’s called the dopaminergic circuit, you learn better. Then there’s the actual content presentation. Then there’s all the fun but effortful parts, like Q&A, discussion, arguments, applying it, doing something with it. All that stuff. Projects. Forgetting and relearning it in a different context. You learned it in a different context but you recall it because, in a project, you need to pull out the stuff you learned.

So, just if you look in a classroom right now, what we do in the classroom is we do lectures. And the lecture is the one thing actually you can do online. And even online you can do it asynchronously, which is what these YouTube videos do, like Khan Academy, etc. And the things that actually we couldn’t do online, we sort of don’t do as much of in the classroom, we ignore it. It’s a tragedy actually. The things we should be doing online, we do in the classroom. And the things we could do in the classroom, we sort of don’t do very much of.

Luke Yoquinto
And we’re talking about discussions, we’re talking about hands-on, contextualization of what you learned, right?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah.

Luke Yoquinto
So, it’s almost as though you have learning as a delivery mechanism where you have lectures that’s introducing knowledge to you for the first time, right? Then you have learning as a steeping mechanism, to steep in the information that you learned after it’s been delivered. And that’s where you’re talking about lab activities, that’s when you’re talking about discussion sessions where the knowledge ping-pongs around the room.

And I think what Sanjay is saying is a really good way to do that initial burst of knowledge is a video lecture. But you really have to do that second part, the ping pong knowledge around the room, and that’s what’s real ideal for in-person learning. And you’ll hear sort of buzzwords like flipped classrooms where you would, for instance, watch your lecture content at home, and then you’re taking part in the discussions, and you’re doing your homework with your teacher at hand to answer questions in the classroom. That’s some of what we’re talking about there.

Sanjay Sarma
And then, so today, during COVID, students are taking stuff remotely. And the problem is what we’ve done is we’ve done something that we shouldn’t be doing which is these lectures where the professors are groaning on, and we put it online. So, of course, students are going to disengage. So, we would say that the right thing to do is use these Zoom to do instructor stuff, get students excited about something, and then use an asynchronous video where they consume the material. Then come back to Zoom and, as best as you can, make up the in-person stuff, discussions, etc. Obviously, you can’t do a chemistry lab over Zoom. You sort of can actually but I wouldn’t recommend it.

So, we sort of have it backwards right now. And, in some ways, the Zoom lecture is exposing the problem and, in fact, when COVID ends, we’re going to go back to the classroom. And what are we going to do? Recreate the Zoom lecture except it runs in the same room. Unfortunately, that’s where we’ll end up, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I want to hit that curiosity point because that is really important. And I guess if you’re not feeling curious, but you got to learn something, how do we stir up some curiosity?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, there’s some really interesting work there about that. It’s important, first of all, to think of curiosity, it is a drive state in the brain. The sensation of hunger and the sensation of curiosity are not actually that different. They’re both something that the brain experiences as something you really want. In one case, it’s food. The other case it’s information.

Now, how does the brain determine what information is worth wanting? That’s a really interesting and constantly unfolding question. But there are some very fascinating work being done around this where you have a study, for instance, where people are being presented with trivia questions as a means to trigger curiosity. And then they’ll be presented with a completely unrelated set of information to remember.

And if they are in a curious state due to the trivia questions, they’ll remember that unrelated information better. It’s as though curiosity creates this global state of stickiness for information in the brain, and it’s really, really fascinating. So, one thing we have to really take on actively is how to promote that sense in the classroom, or whether you learn it on your own, you try to promote it for yourself. And there’s a lot of interesting discussion about what actually promotes that feeling. Is it just the impression that something new to know is available? No, that’s probably not it. It’s called neophilia, and if that were true, we would always be curious about what’s down in a scary dark basement. And we’re often not curious at all to find out what that is.

But one really interesting theory that comes up in the book is this idea that we have the sense that the information at hand is something that will modify what we know in a meaningful way. That might be something that would trigger curiosity. And teachers have been doing this for a really long time, like that’s what this Socratic method is kind of about. It’s about framing things as questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, I mean, I think the thing about curiosity, I’ll give you some tricks to power curiosity. So, because I have to elicit curiosity in students when I teach, I’ll figure out how to do it to myself. And one technique is, one, wonder about the history. I mean, pick a topic, five forces. How did it happen? Who is Porter? What did he arrive at? What problems did he look at? What are other…? What is a three forces approach that failed because two forces are missing? That’s one technique.

So, you have to sort of figure out what gets you going. Why is it right? Critique it, that’s another one. Why does it work? Let me see if I can break it. So, it’s sort of related to the effortful, but you’ve got to sort of get the juices flowing. And this is equal in saliva for hunger is dopamine.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing how with the Socratic method and these questions about the history or why does it work or where it might not work, it’s like the questions alone are getting some drive going. And I found that…and Bob Cialdini has this in his book Pre-Suasion which I think is excellent, is that if we could start with some mystery, like, “How the heck did this come to be?” or, “That doesn’t seem to make sense. What’s really going on here?” is handy.

But even if you can’t summon it for the thing that you need to learn, it sounds like I can just go ahead and get it from somewhere else, and then shift gears quickly into the thing I need to learn, and that’s helpful too right there.

Sanjay Sarma
That’s what Luke just described, the trigger question. If you’re curious about something else, you’ll quickly learn the thing you, well, one particularly, curious about, you learn better. Preferably not the right approach but…

Luke Yoquinto
It’ll be a longer-lasting memory that’s not going to give the context you need but the memory will last longer so, yeah, it’s really interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Luke Yoquinto
Just another thing is if you’re encountering a new body of information for the first time, something that can be really helpful is just to look it over, examine it, and it’s really confusing and it’s bothersome. Build in enough time to get a night’s sleep and then come back to it. There’s a lot of reorganization of long-term memory that happens overnight, and you’d be surprised what made sense in the morning. And sleep on it, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, I know that, we’re talking about learning and technology, we can sort of go overboard when it comes to tools and platforms and software, but I’ve got to ask the pros here. Are there some really cool tools that you think your typical professional can utilize to give their learning a jolt, maybe it’s an app or software, or even just sort of a low-tech technique?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, a lot of tools use this stuff. Obviously, the MOOC platforms because they have Q&A built in and most MOOCs have short videos. I’m going to shout out here Quizlet. Quizlet is Andrew Sutherland. He’s an MIT guy. And it’s used by more than 50% of high school students, I believe, in the country now, and it’s flashcards basically. But he’s got built in other things.

But a flashcard works because it forces you to reload. Boom! Reload. Mix it up. Reload. In fact, there’s a version of the flashcard called a Leitner box which is sort of almost like a card game. It forces you to remember the things you’re about to forget. So, there are tools that apply that. And then there are tools that make things more vivid. I mean, for example, it doesn’t happen all the time, but AR/VR, things like that. They make things more vivid, more realistic. If it’s cognitive and motor, then AR/VR is very interesting, very useful.

By the way, very interesting. There’s an entire industry. I’m going to put you on the spot here, Pete, and ask you. Entire industry that is, for almost a hundred years, has been driven by augmented reality, can you guess which one it is? Luke, do you know the answer?

Luke Yoquinto
When was the first flight simulated?

Sanjay Sarma
Exactly. It’s a hundred years. You got it, Luke. Hundred years, right? Because The Link Company, which is an American company, made flight simulators, like the 1930 timeframe. In fact, during World War II, and that’s basically, a simulator is essentially, a flight simulator is actually augmented reality. And during World War II, America was able to produce more pilots. Japan had the planes as well but they couldn’t produce the pilots. Anyway, there’s a range of tools that work on everything from memory, interleaving. Duolingo does it, Rosetta Stone. Rosetta does it. Quizlet does it. It forces you to go through these tricks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears here and talk about some of your favorite things?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, I think the other thing we need to understand is like gaming software. Gaming software sort of uses another part of your brain, sort of joy center, the limbic system, etc. And we haven’t quite figured out how to work that into games, but there’s, in fact, a nice field called Educational Games. It’s not gamification. It’s more where they try and work it into simulation, doing something and learning along the way. That’s another field that’s emerging, and there are some experts at MIT that know this very well, but I think that’ll become important in the years ahead.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, could you share with me a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Luke Yoquinto
Okay. I chose a nerdy one. it’s, “Fear is the mind-killer.” It’s from Dune.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah.

Luke Yoquinto
Any Dune fans in the house? In terms of this book, I joke, but fear is the mind-killer. Anger is another mind-killer. It can really just take away your ability to process information. And, especially, in the current moment, I like to hold onto that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
Mine is the Eisenhower Principle which is “Sometimes it’s easier to solve the bigger problem than the smaller problem,” because when you’re trying to solve a smaller problem, you get caught in the weeds. So, generalize, I’m trying to solve a bigger problem. And if you look at all the blitz scaling, the Dropboxes and Googles of the world, Google didn’t say, “We’ll search academic documents or we’ll just search the whole web,” because in doing that, they get the experiential benefit upside but they can actually take on a problem and just solve it, indexing site NDC’s, etc. and build several farms.

So, I actually truly believe that sometimes it’s easier to solve the bigger problem than the smaller problem. I believe in generalizing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Luke Yoquinto
So, I chose one that’s apropos of our book, which is Consciousness in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene. We don’t know what makes us tick in our heads and what makes consciousness work exactly, but researchers are picking away at the edges, and there’s some really fascinating research being done about just the edges of what’s perceptible and the pathways that takes in the brain, so I would recommend this book, Consciousness in the Brain.

Sanjay Sarma
For me, I was actually going to go for a consciousness book, but now that Luke stole my thunder, I’m going to have to go in a different direction. I’m going to say Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. And why Is that? Because I believe that some of his absurdist humor, just sort of mind-bending lateral thinking stuff is very essential to creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where shall we point them?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, they can shoot me an email or get in touch with me on Twitter. My name is Luke Yoquinto, and so my Twitter handle is just that, it’s @lukeyoquinto, and you can shoot me an email too. My Gmail is lyoquinto@gmail.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, my call to action is spend three hours a week learning something new. Learn to learn.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Luke Yoquinto
That’s a good one. And just to pile onto Sanjay, Be an extreme learner. Treat learning like it’s a mountain to climb. It’s a habit of the mind to start doing the ones you do. It can be hard stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Sanjay Sarma
Maybe I’ll leave you with a Dos Equis. You know what a Dos Equis said?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right. Yeah.

Sanjay Sarma
I’m not recommending the actual beer although it’s pretty good, “Be curious, my friend.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Sanjay, Luke, this has been fun. I wish you all the best.

Luke Yoquinto
Thanks.

Sanjay Sarma
Thank you very much.

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, thank you.

598: How to Remember Names, Faces, and Facts like a Memory Champion with Chester Santos

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Chester Santos says: "Anyone is capable of developing a powerful memory with just the right techniques, a little bit of training and practice."

U.S. Memory Champion Chester Santos shares his expert tricks and techniques for improving your memory.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why good memory still matters in the digital age
  2. The three principles to remembering anything
  3. How to remember anyone’s name in four steps 

About Chester

U.S. Memory Champion, Chester Santos – “The International Man of Memory” is the world’s leading memory skills expert and founder of MemorySchool.NET.  His memory building tips have been featured on CNNABCPBSNBCCBSBBC, and the Science Channel. He has been quoted in the NY TimesWall Street JournalSF ChronicleWashington Post, and TIME Magazine. Chester has presented in over 30 countries with speaking credits that include TEDx, Talks at Google, and the International Festival of Brilliant Minds.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Chester Santos Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Chester, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Chester Santos
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. I’m really looking forward to talking with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking forward to talking to you too. And I’ve been so curious to ask you, first of all, you’re sporting one fedora right now. I understand you have a collection of 25. How did this come to be?

Chester Santos
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I just, at one point, went through a rebranding as the International Man of Memory because I give speeches all over the world. And part of that involved hiring a stylist to come up with a look for the International Man of Memory, and the stylist came up with this fedora hat idea that I incorporate into the outfits. And I just started to really love it and I’ve been collecting hats for six plus years at this point.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it looks great. Imagine your vest, listeners can’t tell but I’ll let them know you look great.

Chester Santos
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
I have one fedora and, you know what, it was a lot of fun. It drew attention to me which sometimes I like and sometimes I didn’t like. So, I just took it off if I didn’t want it. So, International Man of Memory, that is a good branding, not mystery but memory. So, maybe, can you orient us, first of all, what is a memory grand master? Like, maybe people have heard of a chess grandmaster, but what are these competitions like? How is this life?

Chester Santos
Sure, I’ll get into that. So, what I won was the United States National Memory Championship. It’s an annual competition which has been held in various locations each year. Most recently, it’s now held at MIT, the university, the finals.

Pete Mockaitis
It seems fitting.

Chester Santos
Yeah, the finals is held at MIT. It’s one day of just really hardcore memorization. So, some of the events, one is memorizing a deck of cards, a shuffled deck of 52 playing cards, in the fastest time possible with 100% accuracy. I used to be able to do it back when I was competing in a little under 90 seconds, a minute and a half. Nowadays, some people can do it in even less than 30 seconds. I memorized a 132-digit sequence of computer-generated random digits, forwards and backwards, in 5 minutes. We memorized hundreds of names and faces in just minutes. So, those are some of the events in the United States Memory Championship.

I won it way back in 2008, and since then, I’ve gone into training other people around the world in the subset of techniques that I used to win the US Memory Championship that I feel can also benefit people right away in their career, their personal life, and also they can really help out their kids or grandkids that they might have in school.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you can stop if this is too personal, but I’m always fascinated by, like, competitions where people are like the best in the world, like bodybuilding, Mr. Olympia, or if it’s tennis or football or basketball. So, if I may, just sort of is there an associated prize purse, or what is the size of the prize for the top memory grand master?

Chester Santos
Yeah, good question. So, it varies depending on who they have as the sponsors for that particular year. When I won, unfortunately, there wasn’t a cash prize.

Pete Mockaitis
Aww.

Chester Santos
British Airways was the sponsor so I got business class tickets to represent the United States in the World Memory Championship. And even when there is a cash prize, it hasn’t ever been very high, but what you get more is in terms of, you know, after I won, I was on CNN. Over the years, I’ve been asked to appear on a lot of different TV shows, I get interviewed by newspapers, magazines, and things like that. So, it helps in what I’m doing now as far as it helps me to build my brand, build my name recognition in terms of a memory skills expert. So, it helps out there but in terms of a cash prize, not so much, upfront anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
On the backends. And now you’re here with us in How to be Awesome at Your Job, so we’re delighted. And I want to dig into some of these techniques, which I’m excited about. I understand we’re going to do some demos as well, which is always fun. But maybe, first, if you could sort of contextualize for us, could you paint a picture for why, in this age of Google and computers and smartphones and all this info available kind of outside of our brains, why is it beneficial for professionals to have a great memory?

Chester Santos
Yes. So, you hit on something important. We are in an age of, I sometimes call it, dangerous digital dependency, but definitely digital dependency in which we are outsourcing not only our memory but other mental functions to electronic devices. In terms of memory, specifically I’ll give a couple of quick examples. Phone numbers, we all used to be able to remember the phone numbers of so many friends and family members, easily dial those.

I remember growing up, my parents would give me some emergency numbers that they thought were important for me to know. We all used to be able to do that, but nowadays you give someone even one phone number, and they feel paralyzed. They don’t even think that they can remember.

Pete Mockaitis
“Uh, let me…uh.”

Chester Santos
Yeah, exactly. And it’s getting so bad that some people out there can’t even remember their own phone number. So, it’s a really good example.

Pete Mockaitis
Or their wife, or husband, or mom. Like, if something happened, and your phone got stolen, you could be in a tight spot.

Chester Santos
Exactly. So, it’s really a good example of the “use it or lose it” principle as it applies to memory. Another quick example, navigation. So, you might have an Uber of Lyft driver that’s been driving in a city for five plus years, but if something is wrong with the network connection in that particular area, or something is wrong with the app at that time, it’s happened to me many times over the years, they’ll just need to pull over, they’ll restart their phone maybe ten times until whatever issue is happening will resolve itself. They, a lot of times, haven’t even learned a few basic locations or common landmarks in the city. It’s just a very good example of what happens when you completely turn off your brain and you become 100% dependent on technology. So, that’s a little bit of the negatives, and I think that illustrates a little bit of what I mean by digital dependency.

But what this creates on the job and in the business world is actually a business opportunity to, if you will work on developing your memory skills, even to a small degree, there really is an opportunity now to set yourself apart from others, become much more impressive, and much more memorable to people in business when you do have a really good memory. It’s very noticeable and impressive to people nowadays.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think that’s true. It’s funny, I was just chatting with my buddy about a previous podcast guest, Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income, who’s just an authentic, genuine, friendly guy everyone just loves. He walked the talk. And one thing that’s impressed me is I have bumped into him in person, I don’t know, four times at different events, and I don’t expect him to remember me because he’s a celebrity in his niche, but he does. And I always sort of like, “Hey, Pat, I’m Pete. I was at your event six years, blah, blah, blah.” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, of course, yeah, yeah.” And so that just makes me like, respect, appreciate him all the more.

And I think I’ve seen the converse in terms of friends talking about other friends, and they say, “I don’t really like him.” I was like, “Why?” It’s like, “Well, I’ve had to introduce myself to him four times,” and so they feel kind of insulted in terms of, “You don’t remember my face, my name, who I am at all, and this is kind of ridiculous at this point.”

Chester Santos
Yes, absolutely. So, remembering names is huge in the business world. I like to quote a lot of times How to Win Friends and Influence People. To this date, it’s still one of the most popular business and personal success-related books ever written. And in that book, it was written that the sweetest sound to a person in any language is the sound of their own name, and also that everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. So, in fact, by remembering people’s names, other things about them, it helps you to build better business, personal relationships.

When you think about the most popular people on the job and in various organizations that you might be involved with, when you think about those people, you’re going to notice that they tend to know everyone and also their names and other things about them. Remembering people’s names and things about them really increases your likability factor in business, and that is going to be a factor in advancement of your career. Unfortunately, in the business world, it isn’t always 100% based on the numbers and on only the job performance. It would be nice if that’s how it actually worked, but, in fact, your likability in the department is a factor.

I won’t say where I used to work, but I had a career in Silicon Valley, and I had seen this happen on the job. It’s not always necessarily the most brilliant engineer that gets the promotion. Maybe that brilliant engineer, for whatever reason, didn’t get along as well in the department with someone else that just had that likability factor, they might get the promotion. So, it is something to keep in mind as far as how things actually work in the real world. And, definitely, if you know everybody, you know their name, you know things about them, you’re going to be more popular, more likable.

Politicians are some of my clients, have been my clients over the years. They’re very clear on how this helps make you more popular and more likable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into a lot of the specific tactics, and I think names is going to be big. If we’re going to get it, I’d love to hear how we should think about memorizing parts of a presentation, maybe remembering more of what we read, and, hey, whatever else we have time to cover. But, maybe, could you start by sharing sort of what’s the most, I don’t know, surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive thing that we should just know about our memories before we dig into the tactics?

Chester Santos
Yes. So, I’m really looking forward to getting into some specific, first, general strategies and then techniques with you today, Pete. Surprising thing about memory that I think people don’t realize is it isn’t the case that you’re just born with a good memory or a bad memory. That’s a very common belief. People think that if they have a bad memory, that they’re just stuck with that, there’s nothing that they can do about it. Really, anyone is capable of developing a very powerful memory. It’s just about learning the right techniques and putting in a little bit of fun, training, and practice.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m intrigued, I’m game. So, yeah, well, you have some demos in mind, let’s do one. And if it happens to be in the realm of remembering what we read, or names and faces, or presentations, I’d love to steer there if possible.

Chester Santos
Okay. Awesome. So, first, what I’d like to cover, Pete, are three main principles to a powerful memory that will apply no matter what specific memory technique you end up using, and then we’ll start to get into a specific technique and a couple of demos.

So, the three main principles are, one, visualization. So, turn whatever it is that you’re trying to remember somehow into something that you can picture or see in your mind. So, in the case of names, if the name was Mike, sometimes I visualize a microphone to remind me of the name Mike.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m seeing one of those right now.

Chester Santos
Yeah. If the name were, for instance, Alice, sometimes I visualize a white rabbit because that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, right? Now, I realize that sounds maybe a bit silly or unusual, but, in fact, this can be very powerful and effective. I’d like to get into names in much more detail toward the end after we cover some basics, but what I just wanted to introduce there was this concept of creating a picture in your mind to represent the information.

Pete Mockaitis
And to that point about the picture, so Alice and that rabbit, so that’s kind of personal to you, and that’s probably better, I imagine, because it’s more meaningful, I would speculate. Is there any risk? Like, I guess nobody’s really named Rabbit that I’ve ever met. But do you ever kind get your wires crossed or is that pretty safe, “Hey, Alice is rabbit, and rabbit is Alice, and we’re all good”?

Chester Santos
Knock on wood, I haven’t had any issues yet even at a conference that might have a cocktail hour at the end or something like that. I haven’t slipped up. That really isn’t anything to worry about really. These visuals really are just going to help you to better remember the names. The reason why you want to come up with a visual is because we all tend to be very good at remembering things that we see. I’ll give a quick example here.

Let’s say you go to a party, Pete, and you’re meeting a lot of new people, right? Two weeks after that party is over, you’re talking with one of your friends that was there with you, and your friend describes someone to you from the party, your friend says, “Hey, Pete, you remember that attorney that we met at the party a couple of weeks ago? He’s also a member of the tennis club.” As your friend is going through that description, a lot of times you can picture who they are describing. And, of course, your friend can picture who they’re describing. But a lot of times, neither one of you can manage to remember what the person’s name was, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Or even like a setting, like, “Oh, yeah, we were in the hallway, near the door,” but you don’t remember their name.

Chester Santos
Yeah, really good, there, clarification. It’s true. Sometimes you get even more details, like where they were standing in the party, what they were wearing, but that name you can’t get it. And that is because you didn’t see the name, the name is something much more abstract to your brain. And it is very common for people to be good at remembering faces but not names. And it makes sense because when you are interacting with people in various ways, you do see the face, the face is recorded into your visual memory but not the name. So, that’s why one thing you can do is come up with a visual representation of the name. But the principle, in general, is to come up with something that you can picture in your mind to represent the information.

Now, the second principle that will apply, no matter what information type, is, after you come up with a visual, try to involve as many additional senses as you can, because when you do this, you will be activating more and more areas of your brain, and you will be building more and more connections in your mind to the information, making it easier to retrieve it later on.

So, I was, at one point, on an episode of PBS’ Nova Science, I performed what, at first, seemed like some pretty crazy memory feats. They had me train David Pogue on the show as well. And then after that, they had these brain scientists, neuroscientists, come on and explain to everyone at home, watching at home, “Okay. How in the world did Chester do that? How in the world did David Pogue pull that off with just a little bit of training?” And these brain scientists confirmed that it’s because, with these memory techniques that I’ve mastered over the years, and that we’re going to learn a little bit about during the interview today, what’s happening is we are recruiting extra areas of the brain.

So, areas of the brain that most people would never involve when trying to commit things to memory. With these techniques, we are activating more of the brain to help us, and part of this is learning to utilize additional senses. So, the more senses you involve, the easier it becomes to remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, I’m thinking about with the Alice and the rabbit, I mean, maybe you have the scent of the rabbit as opposed to just, “Oh, there’s a white rabbit.”

Chester Santos
You got it. You are exactly right. So, step one, to come up…

Pete Mockaitis
Or maybe it’s like you can feel the nibbles of the rabbit’s teeth on your finger.

Chester Santos
You got it. So, first, the visual, then involve additional senses, exactly as you just described, and then you are activating more of the brain. You’re more powerfully encoding that into your memory.

Third and final principle, while you are seeing and experiencing this with additional senses, try to make the whole scenario crazy, unusual, extraordinary in some way so that you can take advantage of the psychological aspect to human memory, and that is, all of us, we’re putting forth little to no effort at all, we tend to remember things that catch us by surprise, that are strange, unusual, extraordinary in some way.

Pete, if this actually happened at this moment, if an elephant suddenly crashed into the room that you’re in, and people that are listening to the interview, if an elephant suddenly crashed into the room that they’re in and started spraying water all over the place, if that actually happened right now, you would probably remember it for the rest of your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Chester Santos
And always tell that story, “You’re never going to believe this, okay? I was interviewing this memory guy, out of nowhere, an elephant just crashed into the room.” That might be stuck in your mind even 30 plus years later without you putting forth any effort at all to remember it. Whereas, other times, we might spend weeks, months, trying to get really important information into our long-term memory. We find it to be very difficult, right?

Although this isn’t fully understood exactly how this works in the brain, we do realize that there is this psychological aspect to human memory. Realizing it, we can harness that and apply it to things that would be useful to remember. Names and faces, presentations, foreign languages, training material, and so on. There are really practical applications for this. Memory is a fundamental part of learning and the acquisition of knowledge. So, when you improve your ability to remember, it’s going to have a really huge positive impact on many different areas of your career and also in your personal life in terms of your lifelong learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. So, okay, it’s visualizable, we bring in the senses, and if you make it somehow extraordinary, unique, kind of wild, or larger than life, those are the principles at work.

Chester Santos
You’ve got it down. So, those are the three main principles. They will apply no matter what specific memory technique you end up using.

I’d like to, now, go into an interactive exercise that you’ll go through, Pete. I’m sorry to put you on the spot here.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it. But if I look dumb, we’ll edit it out. That’s how I roll.

Chester Santos
Just do your best, and I think people listening to the interview today will enjoy just giving this a try and see how they do with it.

So, we’re going to apply those three main principles to try to memorize a really long random list of words. The list will be monkey, iron, rope…

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I shouldn’t write this down, right?

Chester Santos
No, don’t write this down. And people following along with the interview, please don’t write this down. Don’t use any electronic device. So, use nothing but your brain and your memory. I know people aren’t used to doing this nowadays, but we’ll just give it our best shot.

So, the word list is going to be monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm, envelope, pencil, river, rock, tree, cheese and dollar. Now…

Pete Mockaitis
That’s long.

Chester Santos
Yeah, it’s a really long list of random words. And when I recite that at my live presentations around the world, people in the audition often look at me as if, “Come on, Chester. There’s no way I’m going to be able to remember that, not unless you give me a lot of time to do it.” But, in fact, Pete, you’ll have this down, your listeners will have this down, perfectly forwards and backwards in just about three minutes. That’s all. Three minutes.

And without any further review, after today, even weeks from now, people will still know this, forwards and backwards. I get people even writing me emails months later telling me they’re wanting to demonstrate to me that they still remember this. How you pull it off, just listen to what I describe to you, see and experience it in your mind as best you can, and just really relax, have fun with it.

So, if people ever went to my website, I guess they’ll find it in the show notes later, they’ll see me on CNN. On CNN, I had to memorize a half deck of cards during the commercial break. I only had about two minutes to do it, and then when they came back live on the air, I had to do that perfectly from memory. There was a lot of pressure on me. If people look at that clip, they’re going to notice that I’m smiling, I’m giggling. I think they maybe thought I was a little bit crazy or nutty when I was on the show, but, really, that’s an important key to this. If everyone is smiling and giggling as they’re going through this exercise, it’s a really good sign that they’re going to remember the words. So, just relax, have fun. You’ll have it down.

The first word was monkey. So, just imagine that you see a monkey in your mind. The monkey is dancing around, making monkey noises, “Hoo, hoo, hoo,” whatever a monkey would sound like. I’m working on my monkey impression, but the point here is to see and hear the monkey, right? The monkey, now, picks up a gigantic iron. So, the monkey is dancing around with this giant iron now. Picture that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, for like steaming clothes.

Chester Santos
You got it. Yeah, something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chester Santos
Picture that iron like for your clothes. The iron now starts to fall but a rope attaches itself to the iron. Maybe even feel the rope, really interact with it, right? Maybe it feels rough. You look up the rope and you see the other end of the rope is attached to a kite. Maybe it’s flying around, and it’s just out your reach, that kite. The kite you see now crashes into the side of a house, really see it smash into the house. Picture that.

The house is completely covered in paper. It’s completely covered in paper. Out of nowhere, a shoe appears and it starts to walk all over the paper. Maybe it’s messing it up as it’s walking on it, that shoe. It smells pretty badly, so you decide to investigate and see why. You look inside of the shoe and you find a little worm crawling around inside of that shoe. Really see the smelly worm.

The worm now jumps out of the show and into an envelope. Maybe it’s going to mail itself or something. I don’t know, but envelope was next. A pencil appears out of thin air and it starts to write all over that envelope. Maybe it’s addressing it, that pencil. The pencil now jumps into a river, and there’s a huge splash, for some reason, when it hits the river.

The river, you notice, is crashing up against a giant rock. That rock flies out of the river, it crashes into a tree. The tree is growing cheese. You probably haven’t seen a tree like that before. This one is growing cheese. And out of nowhere, a dollar starts to shoot out of the cheese, right? Really see that dollar. That was the entire list. I’m going to run through this again very quickly in about 30 seconds, and your job is to simply replay through the story that you’ve created in your mind.

So, we started off with a monkey. The monkey was dancing around, with what? It was an iron. What attached itself? It was a rope. The other end of the rope was attached to what? It was a kite. The kite crashed into what? It was a house. What was the house covered in? It was…

Pete Mockaitis
Paper.

Chester Santos
Paper. What walked on it? It was a shoe. What was crawling in the shoe? It was a worm. The worm jumped into what? An envelope. What wrote on it? A pencil. The pencil jumped into the river. The river was crashing up against the rock, that flew into a tree. It was growing what? Cheese. And what came out? It was a dollar.

So, now, Pete, I’ll have you give it a try. Take your time. And people that are listening can follow along and see how well they do. Try to recite all of those random words for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. We’ve got monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm…oh, no, no. Yeah, yeah, shoe, worm, envelope, pencil, river, rock, tree, dollar.

Chester Santos
Tree? After tree?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, tree. Cheese, dollar, yeah.

Chester Santos
You got it, man. Great job there. Excellent job there. Pete, you did so well, in fact, though that I’m going to have you attempt to do that now backwards. Take your time, and people can also see how they do.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’ve got the dollar, cheese, tree, is it a rock?

Chester Santos
You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
River, pencil, envelope, worm, shoe, paper, house, kite, rope, iron, monkey.

Chester Santos
Perfect. A hundred percent, man. Great job. Really nice. Nice work there.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sweating a little bit, Chester.

Chester Santos
Yeah, I put you under a bit of pressure there, but great job under pressure. You got 100%, and I’m sure that people listening to the interview today probably got, if not 100%, close to it. That technique that we’ve just covered is called the story method. And the story method is just one of many techniques that memory champions, like myself, use to pull off what, at first, might seem like extraordinary memory feats. But, again, there’s nothing different about my brain compared to everyone else’s. It’s just about using the right technique and putting in a little bit of training and practice.

This doesn’t just apply to random words. It can apply to even very much more complex types of information. And later on, in the interview, I had in mind, we’d take it a step further but if you have any other questions, just let me know before we move onto maybe a little bit, I guess, a level two in terms of memory skill exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. That was fun. And I’ve heard, this probably isn’t the place for this, that with numbers, it’s kind of a matter of each one is assigned a letter, which can, thus, become words, which can, thus, become memorize-able. And, it’s funny, I used this, I don’t know, it might’ve been in my honeymoon or maybe it was earlier, with my wife in terms of, she’s like, “Tell me what my phone number is.” Like, okay, and so I really took my time to break it down using that. And sometimes, to this day, I’m still summoning the ridiculous picture story phrase that gets those numbers there, but it works.

So, yeah, okay. Well, yeah, let’s do another one. And if it happens to help us with reading or presentations or names, I would love it.

Chester Santos
Okay. Cool, yeah. So, you hit on numbers there. And, again, no matter the information type, the three main principles will remain the same that we covered earlier – visualization, additional senses, make it all crazy, unusual, extraordinary. But for something more abstract like numbers, there’s a system you need to learn. It only takes about one hour to learn it, that’s it. That allows you to take something abstract like numbers and turn it into a concrete image.

Once you have an image for the abstract piece of information, you could then build a story, and there are many other techniques that you could use from there. That system has been known by many different names. One is Phonetic Alphabet system. Another is major system, that’s covered. Because it’s going to take a minimum of an hour to learn that by itself, it’s covered in my online memory school, and I think you’ll have the link in the show note, but it’s MemorySchool.net.

So, again, the techniques don’t apply to just random words. We’re going to move onto level two in terms of difficulty. We’re going to learn now how to create mental notecards or mental cue cards. This is a concept that I covered in my talks. Over at Harvard University, I gave seminars for their graduate students. I also covered this in my talk for SAG-AFTRA, the actors foundation, to help actors remember their lines. We’re going to build mental cue cards here.

I want for you to just visualize what I describe to you, that’s all. See and experience it happening, as we did earlier, and then I will explain what we ended up, actually what we built mental notecards for. So, Pete, just try to visualize some giant machines, as best you can, some gigantic machines. These gigantic machines are smashing up a huge pile of gold and silver. A huge pile of gold and silver. Rising up out of the gold and silver – vehicles. Okay? Whatever that looks like to you.

Shooting out of the vehicles – medicine. And exploding out of the medicine – oil. Maybe black petroleum oil would be easiest to visualize, okay? That’s it. I’m going to run through that again, just replay through this little story. So, we had the giant machines were smashing up the gold and silver. What rose up? Vehicles. What shot out of the windows? Medicine. And what exploded out of the medicine? It was oil.

So, first, go ahead and try to give those main items back to me from memory.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure thing. So, we started with giant machines that were smashing gold and silver, from which emerged vehicles that had medicine spilling out, and then in the medicine was oil.

Chester Santos
Perfect. So, you got that 100% correct. What you’ve done there, Pete, without realizing it, or maybe you did realize it, I’m not sure, I actually had you there just memorize the top five exports of the UK. So, if you were to look that up right now and see what the top five exports of the UK are, you’ll see listed machinery, precious metals, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and oil. So, you start to see how the image doesn’t need to perfectly match what you’re trying to remember, you’re simply building a mental notecard.

So, can you try to give me now the exports using that little story to guide you?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. So, it’s machinery, precious metals, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and oil.

Chester Santos
You got it. Perfect. So, Pete, it might not seem like much at first but, again, in today’s world where no one is using their memory very much, when you get into a meeting with maybe it’s clients for your company or potential clients, or it’s a meeting with colleagues or your boss, when you get in there and you’ve prepared for that meeting, you have 5, 10, 15 key things committed to memory, what this does is really better demonstrate your knowledge, right? You’re showing that you actually know something, that you actually know your stuff. You’re better demonstrating your expertise. You’re going to be perceived as more of an expert in your field. People are more impressed with you. People will have more confidence in you and your abilities. And, also, when you have a really good memory, again, you become so much more memorable to people in the business world, on the job.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that. So, I’m eager to get into the names here now and so I went ahead and grabbed the Social Security Administration’s top names over the last hundred years. So, we talked about it being visualizable, and with Alice, you saw a rabbit because that was resonating for you with the story. I’m seeing the top names here. We got James, Mary, John, Patricia. How would I turn some of those into things I can see?

Chester Santos
Well, so my example for…I’d rather actually have people come up with their own image, but my example for John, you can watch that CNN clip, I gave…

Pete Mockaitis
I’m here. Let’s do it.

Chester Santos
Yeah, somehow, I didn’t get in trouble for that. The host, one of the hosts of that show was named John, and, luckily, he wasn’t too upset with me, but I might imagine, you know, a toilet bowl as in going to the John, right? Mary, I might imagine a little lamb because Mary had a little lamb.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Or the Madonna, you know, for a religious perspective.

Chester Santos
James, I might imagine just a famous James. It could be a character from a TV show or movie. It could be simply a friend or a family member that has the same name like your uncle.

Pete Mockaitis
Or Darth Vader.

Chester Santos
It could be that you visualize even just your Uncle James. Patricia, I might think of Patricia Arquette. So, I want to clarify this point a little bit. So, I said come up with a visual. Now, how you come up with that visual can vary. So, it can be a famous person that has the same name, a friend or family member that you’re seeing in your mind that has the same name, or it could be something like a sound alike. So, for the name Jane, I might picture a chain, okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chester Santos
I gave you something more symbolic like a white rabbit for Alice. So, there are various ways as to how the image can remind you of that name, but the best way to describe the concept, in general, is to come up with an image, or series of images, that will some way, anyway, remind you personally of the name, right? And there actually is another step to this.

The next step is to connect that image to something unique about the person’s look. So, if, to you, Jane has really cool-looking hair, you might imagine that chains are going through her hair, clacking together, making a really loud noise. So, how this works in practice is the next time you see her, all you have to do is ask yourself, “Okay, what is noticeable to me about her look?” What you notice, personally, what was noticeable to you before, is very likely will be noticeable to you again. And then the image that you stored there will come right back to you.

So, in this case, the chains might remind you of, again, chain might remind you of Jane. So, that is kind of an overview for how it works. It sounds weird, again, I realize but anyone can become really good at this with a little bit of training and practice, and that’s how I open presentations around the world with naming even hundreds of people in the audience after hearing each name just one time before the presentation starts.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think you said something there, kind of quickly, but it’s important. You hear the name, like you make sure that you get it in the first place, and don’t be shy to ask them to repeat themselves if you need to. Like, if you didn’t hear Jane said Jane, you’re dead in the water.

Chester Santos
Absolutely. Absolutely, Pete. So, let me give you four quick steps that will help you with that because that’s absolutely necessary for this. So, I recommend that you combine that visual-based technique with the following four steps when you’re meeting someone.

Step number one, immediately repeat the name. So, if you’re introduced to someone named Jane, “Nice to meet you, Jane,” or, “Please to meet you, Jane.” That’s it. It seems totally obvious but, as you mentioned, a lot of times we’re not paying that much attention to the name. Our mind might be all over the place. We’re thinking about all sorts of other things.

Pete Mockaitis
“No, I said…” Or you might have gotten it wrong. Like, “No, I said Tane.” “Is it Tane? Oh, okay. I’m glad I clarified with you.”

Chester Santos
Yes. So, repeating the name really gives you the opportunity to clarify the name, as you mentioned, and also make sure that you pay attention for at least one second. That’s the only way you could attempt to repeat the person’s name back to them, right? So, that first step, if you start doing that today, eventually it’s going to become a habit and second nature to you.

Step number two, I recommend that you use the name early on in your interaction with the person. So, simply, “Jane, how do you know Chester?” or, “Jane, how long have you been involved with this organization?” And I want to clarify, I don’t mean use the name over and over again in the conversation to where it starts to seem a little weird. Really, just using it once early on in the interaction will be enough to reinforce the name in your mind.

Step number three, take a few seconds, or less, to think of a connection between the name and, literally, anything at all that you already know. So, Jane, I don’t know, maybe think of Jane Goodall. And, again, as I mentioned, it could be like a character from a TV show or movie. It could be something as simple as you have a friend of family member with that name. Maybe you have an Aunt Jane. And when you’re going through that step, that might also help you come up with your visual, right?

Fourth and final step is to make sure, whenever you leave the meeting, the party, whatever type of function it might be, the conference maybe, make it a point to try and say goodbye to people actually using their name, “I hope to see you again sometime, Jane.” Using the name that last time is going to go a long way toward helping you remember more of those names the next time you see those people. And if at that point you’ve already forgotten the name, I highly recommend that you ask them their name again right then and there because, at that point, they’re less likely, I think, to be offended. At that point, I think they’re more likely to appreciate the fact that you care enough to remember their name for the next time you see them. You’re expressing interest in that person, and they’re really going to appreciate that fact.

So, those four steps, combined with the visuals that I talked about earlier, I think are really going to help you out. You might not be 100%, even I’m not 100%, but if you can remember 80% plus of the people that you’re meeting, this is going to pay huge dividends for you in your career and in your personal life. And in my online school, I actually simulate introducing you to people so that you really develop that skill.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. Well, Chester, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Chester Santos
I think I’ve covered really everything that I had in mind in terms of the main concepts that are always going to be involved when you want to develop a powerful memory no matter what specific technique. We got into a couple of interactive exercises that I think people will enjoy playing around with, and we got into some specific tips on names. Those are some of the most important things that I really wanted to cover that I think people will be able to put to use right away on the job and in their personal lives in terms of lifelong learning. And you can also share what you learned from this interview with your kids or grandkids that might be in school as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Chester Santos
“You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.” I like that. I like that quote a lot. And that applies to my area because some people, you know, they’re scared off because maybe they’re not…they don’t currently believe that they have a very good memory. But, really, all you have to do is get started in learning these types of techniques and, before you know it, you will have a very powerful memory. But you do just have to get started.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Chester Santos
How to Win Friends and Influence People that I often quote in my presentations. There’s a lot in that book, not just about names and how important memory is in the business world, but really just a lot of business and personal success-related tips in general. So, that’s one of my favorite books, and I do recommend that people check that one out if they haven’t already, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, it resonates, and folks quote it back to you a lot?

Chester Santos
I think what I’d like people most to note about my message, in general, is that anyone is capable of developing a powerful memory with just the right techniques, a little bit of training and practice, this can be fun to do, and it’s going to benefit you in so many ways because, again, memory is a fundamental part to learning and the acquisition of knowledge. So, I guess that’s the main nugget that I want people to keep I mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Chester Santos
Yeah, if people are interested into diving into memory skills training deeper and really put this to use in their career, personal life, help their kids in school, MemorySchool.net is my main training website. I would visualize a giant net so you remember that it’s .net. And I setup coupon code AWESOME in honor of being on your podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Chester Santos
So, the first 50 people to use couple code AWESOME at MemorySchool.net will be able to get started with no enrollment fee whatsoever. So, I hope people will be encouraged to check that out.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s going to be a mad dash to put that in there. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Chester Santos
I want to encourage people to just take action. If this is something that…and not only my area, not just memory skills, but, really, anything that they’re hearing about on your podcast, any particular topic that they find very interesting, I really encourage people to take action on it as soon as possible because, once you do take that action, whether it’s signing up for the Memory School, whatever it might be, once you take the action, you are ten times more likely to actually develop that skill.

Whereas, if you don’t take action right away, it could be that I’m on your show again in a year or two, and people will not have developed the new skills. Again, you really just, as I mentioned in my quote, you really just have to get started in order to eventually become great.

Pete Mockaitis
Chester, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in your memory adventures.

Chester Santos
Thank you so much again, Pete, for having me.

543: How to Build Skills Faster and Improve Mental Performance with Britt Andreatta

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Britt Andreatta says: "Our body is built for learning."

Britt Andreatta shares neuroscience insights for boosting your learning, memory, and creativity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make your learning stick
  2. The striking benefits of boredom
  3. How to deal with information overwhelm

About Britt:

Dr. Britt Andreatta is an internationally-recognized thought leader who creates brain science-based solutions for today’s challenges. As CEO of 7th Mind, Inc., Britt Andreatta draws on her unique background in leadership, neuroscience, psychology, and learning to unlock the best in people, helping organizations rise to their potential.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Empower. Save more money, effortlessly. Get $5 free when you reach your savings goal at empower.me/awesome with the promo code AWESOME

Britt Andreatta Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Britt, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Britt Andreatta
Hi, Pete. I’m super excited to talk to you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Me too. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom associated with learning and I understand you’ve been learning some things about fabric art lately. What’s the story here?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’ve discovered a new hobby for myself, which kind of surprised me, but I am just really into it and it takes me to that place of flow where I can do it for hours and not feel like I’m working. And because I’m a researcher, I’m always in my head analyzing stuff and it gets me out of that. And I just get to play with color and textures and build these beautiful fabric murals that I just take great joy from it. But it’s a new hobby so I’m now in that place where you’re trying to feed the flames of a new hobby and investing way too much in it and then figuring out where I’m putting it in the house and have scraps of stuff everywhere, so it’s kind of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a fabric mural, I don’t know if I have seen a fabric mural before. I probably have, I just don’t even realize it. Help me visualize that.

Britt Andreatta
Well, so you can draw something on a piece of fabric, and then instead of using paint to fill it in, you use pieces of fabric to be your paint, and so you’re sewing them on, or stitching them on, or quilting them on, whatever technique you want to use to build the image using fabric.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting. I’ve heard that these kinds of activities, here’s a segue for you, like these sorts of things, kind of like knitting, is something that can sort of put you into a different brain groove. And I imagine you are one of the most qualified people to comment on this. What’s the story there?

Britt Andreatta
Well, whenever we have something that takes our attention but doesn’t require a whole lot of cognitive thought, you know, really concentrating on something or analyzing something, it can just take us to that zone, a little bit of a zone state where you can be really present.

I think we all have something like this. For some people, it’s running. For some people, it’s some kind of knitting or fabric art. For some people, it might be gardening. But there’s real pleasure in it because it acts as a mindfulness practice. It allows you to hit that place of presence and really just being in the here and now, which is, for me, it’s hugely relaxing. I find that I’m so much calmer and happier after I spend a little time doing this thing. The fact that I build things and then that I can give away as gifts is also cool. But even if I couldn’t, just the value of being in that state makes me a happier person to be around.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear that, yes. That’s excellent. Well, so we’re going to talk about brain science and learning and such, so maybe we can go meta for a moment before we do that. Do you have any quick tips for listeners right now because we’re about to learn something? What might they do in this very moment of listening to maximize the learning from the exchange we’re having right here?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, the big myth that we all believe but which is not true is that we can multitask while learning and we just cannot do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-oh. Everyone doing the dishes right now, like, stop. Put the wash down.

Britt Andreatta
Put them down. We can multitask in other parts of our life, like you can cook and listen to something. But when you truly want to learn, and learning requires that you take it in and it gets pushed to your short-term memory and then ultimately your long-term memory, our brain really needs to be able to focus on it and gather all that information so it has a complete set of data to push into memory.

And when we multitask, we kind of flip back and forth, it’s called switch tasking, so if you’re also trying to look at your email and listen to this podcast, what your brain would do is I’d become the Peanuts character in the background, “waah, waah, waah, waah,” as you read the email, or you’re listening to what I say and you’re not really glomming onto what the words in the email are saying.

So, if you really want to learn, just focus on learning. If you’re listening to this for entertainment, it’s okay that you’re doing the dishes at the same time. But if you really want to push it into memory, give it the focus it deserves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the first thing is giving it the focus. But does anything else leap to mind?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, with any kind of learning, learning is stickier, meaning you’ll be able to recall it better in the future if you try to find a way to attach it to something you know. So, as we’re talking today about brain tips and tricks, if you remember a time that works for you in the past, or you imagine a time doing it or it calls up a memory, and each time you can attach it, or it reminds you of something you learned in the class in college, hook it to something you already know and it makes it stickier than if you just let it be kind of a free-floating piece of information.

Now, good teachers will do the work and help you attach it to something you know, but that’s a trick you can also use for yourself, is find a way to connect it to something you’ve already experienced or heard or seen or lived through.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny, that really reminds me of when I was in high school in Economics class, I started thinking about the firm and profit maximizing and how, in a way, that’s kind of like life, there’s stuff you like doing, that’s like revenue, stuff you don’t like doing, that’s like cost, and you might try to maximize your profits, or you might say that’s a hedonistic way to live your life, and you shouldn’t. But, anyway, that’s how I was kind of like connecting with things and it makes a world of difference. And then, subsequently, I guess you might call these scaffolding or mental models, or there’s probably a number of terms neuroscientists use for these concepts we have to attach stuff to. What do we call those?

Britt Andreatta
It’s called a schema.

Pete Mockaitis
Schema, there it is.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, so there’s schemas in your brain for all kinds of things, and they’re different for each of us, but the trick to good learning or to putting it to memory is to hook it to a schema you already have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, as I think about that, I’ve done this kind of naturally with a lot of things and maybe that’s why I got good grades. So, it’s interesting, like anything from a computer game I loved to play, it’s like, “You know what, this is a lot like a missile base, they’re defending a planet.” Tell me, what are some of your go-to schemas you find yourself naturally attaching new learning to frequently?

Britt Andreatta
So, I build learning for other people frequently, so when I’m trying to build an experience for my audience, I try to find something that I know is pretty common knowledge. So, for example, I have a change training and I’ve built it all around this idea of going hiking or mountain climbing, and even if you’ve never done it, you know what it is, right?

So, as I’m playing with the concepts and likening change to different kinds of terrain and journeys, your brain has a place in it because it’s heard of that before. So, if you’re designing learning for other people, this is what great science and math teachers did in high school and college, is they took something that’s fairly abstract and they found a way to attach it to something you already knew about, and how you did that with your own Economics class.

So, if you’re designing learning for others, think about that. And for yourself, whenever you can put yourself through that little pace of, “Huh, what does this sound like? What can I connect this to? Do I have an experience of this?” it just gives your brain something to physically adhere it to in a way that makes the difference in terms of how it is stored in the brain and the ways your brain can call it up in the future.

Because the way our brain calls up a memory is all of our senses are part of when we learn, so we’ve got the visual, the auditory, the taste, and the smell, all of those are like threads, and they get bundled up, these bundled up sensations get kind of packaged as part of the memory. And so, pulling any one of those threads can pull it back.

This is why if you’ve ever traveled in Paris, for example, and you were there and you were feeling the rain, and smelling the croissants or the stinky cheese, or whatever it is, if you ever smell a croissant in the future, it can pop you back to this picture of Paris, “Oh, my gosh, I remember I’ve been there.” So, memory is actually tied through all these senses, and if we’re intentional about that, then we can use those threads to help pull that thing back out of the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is interesting. And so, while we fast-forwarded right to some immediate tactics, but maybe we can zoom out a little bit in terms of so you’ve got this book Wired to Grow and now a version 2.0 even. Can you tell us, what’s the main thesis and what’s sort of like the hot new discoveries that warranted a second version?

Britt Andreatta
Great questions. So, I wrote the first book five years ago and it came out, honestly, for me, just doing research into neuroscience because I wanted to be better at my craft as a chief learning officer, so I literally did the learning for my own benefit. And then I ended up sharing it as a presentation, and people were like, “Oh, my God, you need to share this with more people.” So, I started doing it as a keynote, and then it turned into a book.

Neuroscience is still a relatively young field. It’s only recently that they’ve even had the technology, and new technologies coming online all the time, to even see inside of us and see what really is happening. So, neuroscience is relatively fresh on the scene in terms of giving us a new way of looking at any behavior. I happen to look at learning but you can apply it to anything.

And so, honestly, I had written two books since the first one. I’d done the one on change, which is Wired to Resist and I had done the one on teams Wired to Connect. And, like anything else, as I wrote books, I got better at it. So, then I kept looking at this first book, and it just looks so sad compared to the others. It wasn’t as well-researched. The graphics were terrible. I was just like, “You know what, it needs a refresh,” and I was really busy. And I thought, “Instead of writing a whole new book, why don’t I just refresh ‘Wired to Grow’? I can update some studies. I can clean up the graphics. It won’t take that much work.” So, I actually took it on as “doable” project.

Well, in five years, so much had change around what we know about learning that I literally had to rewrite the whole thing. I mean, it’s 90% new material and 10% some of the original concepts from the book. So, the reason I did, you know, the real reason I did a second version was to kind of get that up to speed with the other ones. But what was really exciting was seeing just how much more new information we’ve discovered about how we learn, what memories are, how we drive behavior change, what creativity is, like there’s just so many good things that the book ended up being twice as big as it was originally.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. So, can you share with us, like what is sort of a new discovery that is sort of mind-blowingly cool?

Britt Andreatta
All right. Well, there’s several of them, but let me give you a couple of them. One of the first is just really understanding what creativity is. They can now see when we have those aha moments, and a lot of our best ideas come from aha moments. Even if you’re trying to solve a problem, usually you don’t solve it in that minute that you’re concentrating on it. It’s usually when you step back and take a break, or you’re in the shower. Oddly enough, showers are one of the number one places people have moments of creativity.

That they can now see the aha moment, and they can see the brain waves change on the MRI machine a few milliseconds before the aha moment actually happens. And they can also see that right before the aha moment happens our visual cortex goes offline. Scientists call it brain blink. But, essentially, it’s all happening in that millisecond before we go, “Eureka!”

And what’s interesting now is, as they’re understanding what creativity is, we can now set ourselves up for having moments of creativity. So, some things to do are the resting neocortex, take a break, give your brain that chance to step back from what it’s concentrating on because that allows more regions of the brain to come online and those connections to happen, those synapses to fire.

The second thing you can do is prepare your brain to have connections. So, this is really about getting outside of your comfort zone, reading sources and topics that seem unrelated or that would not be your normal go-to. So, it’s kind of like walking into a library, and instead of going to your favorite section, you go explore a lot of different sections in the library and expose your brain, let it take in more stuff. You’re preparing it to draw connections that you might not normally see.

And then the third thing that you can do, it’s called sensory gating, which is stuff like taking a shower where we have the white noise and we’re warm and we can kind of setup this place for things. Sitting out in nature is another form of sensory gating. Being near water seems to be particularly effective. And so, you just allow these senses to kind of take a break, and it seems to setup that moment to create more aha moments.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, you got me wondering about hopping into a sensory deprivation chamber, a.k.a. float tank. Like, is there some science there? You’re gating all kinds of senses there.

Britt Andreatta
I haven’t personally sat in one, and I didn’t remember reading a study specifically about that, but it makes sense to me that that would work, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It’s like, “I need my pen and paper though. Can I get that in here?”

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. This is what’s funny, is that before, I’m sure you’re like this too, like when I’m trying to solve a problem, I just want to keep at it, and I used to get annoyed when I would feel tired, or I just need to have a break. I’d feel like I was slacking. But since I read this research, I’m now like, “Great. Take a break. I’m setting myself up for the aha moment.” So, it gets me more committed to the breaks. And, honestly, it’s made work go better now that I’m kind of working with how the brain creates moments of aha.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate that explanation associated with sensory gating, like that’s what these things have in common, that’s why showers do that because you are in an environment where some things are shut off, they’re closed, and so there you go. I heard a fun story, I guess I think it might’ve been Aaron Sorkin, got great ideas in the shower, so he just built a shower in his office and took like eight showers a day, which I respect.

Britt Andreatta
When I’m teaching this group to crowds of people, I’ll ask, “Where do you get your best ideas?” and shower is one of the number one reasons. In fact, I encourage people to read a book that’s written, it’s called The Blue Mind and it’s all about the research of why water, being in it, on it, under it, around it, seems to lend itself to both us feeling calmer and having more creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. Well, so I want to talk about some calm for a moment. So, we’re talking about brains and working to process and learn information. It seems like quite an epidemic folks have these days is just information overwhelm, overload, too many emails, too many incoming things, competing priorities, like, “What even do I focus on? I just feel…” maybe like you’re drowning in all this stuff. So, can you tell us, what does that to our brain and what should we do about it?

Britt Andreatta
That’s a great question, and I definitely suffer from this as well. Well, it’s true. Technology has outstripped biology. We now have technology pushing things at us faster, bigger, better than we are biologically designed to consume so we are overwhelmed. And that’s why, I think, we’re seeing stress levels go up, people not taking vacations. Used to be that email was a convenient way to communicate, and now there’s just so much pressure. People want instant communications. There are so many different channels at which we can have information pushed at us, and we are living in the information economy, so everyone is trying to get our attention with, it’s about screen time now, “How long can we keep eyeballs on the screen?”

So, remember there is a capitalistic component of it where people are maximizing that because that’s where their dollars come from. That’s why when you’re on social media, it constantly is loading up more things to click on. You will never get to the bottom of the page or get to the last video because it’s designed to keep taking you down the rabbit hole.

So, with that, and I love technology, it’s beautiful and wonderful, and yet it can really stress us out so we all have to have some agency and some sense of self-control. I think this is why digital detox is really important. Like, giving yourself a day to just not be on any screens, coming home at the end of the day and just setting your devices down and not picking them up for a while, and definitely, so you don’t take your screens to bed. These are all important things to think about.

The other thing, too, is that, remember, we’re a tribal species. We are designed and built to live in tribes of about 150, and that’s what our brain was really built to keep track of, relationships we could manage. And so, now that we’re global, and trust me, I get the beauty of being a globally-connected world. I think it makes us more empathetic to our brothers and sisters of different cultures around the world. It also means, though, that we’re trying to track too many things. And, particularly, because news likes to send us all the negative stories, it can put us into that amygdala, a fight of flight response, of feeling stress all the time.

Because when we look at the news, what we’re hearing about is 10 people drowned in Bangladesh, and so many people this happened to them here, and a plane crash over there, and fires here. Not that we shouldn’t be informed, but if you’re not careful, your brain is literally feeling like you’re under attack all day every day, because your brain, these are all members of your tribe, and you should gear up to fight that foe.

So, I think it’s also a little bit about controlling access to yourself, not letting all these messages come to you. And then also, intentionally finding ways to find good stories and counterbalancing the negative spin that’s designed to sell things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I think that’s well-said, and I feel it in terms of sometimes I’ll hop into an Uber and then they’ll just have sort of some news going, it’s like, “This home was broken into, and this thing burned down.” I kind of go back and forth with this in terms of like, “Just how much do I really need to know this? Like, being informed sounds like a good thing that we want to be, but then, again, how crucial is it?” And sometimes I get a little bit snarky with the newspapers or media, it’s like, “Here’s the news you need to know.” Like, “Do I need to know it today? Really? Is that a need? To what extent do I need it?” And I get all philosophical about the matter.

So, I guess, what I’ve come away with this in terms of, hey, different professionals at different times have different needs for news consumption. So, if you’re running a political campaign, yeah, you’re going to need to know a lot of those things about what’s going there. And if you’re sort of just engineering innovative technological solutions over at XYZ company, you may not need to know what the headlines are all that often.

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. And then it’s just about realizing that your devices and the companies that feed those devices are going to be trying to get your attention. They’re going to use whatever strategy they can to get more of your time. So, at some point, you just have to say, “No, I’m turning it off. I’m having a no-technology window of my day.” And then just pay attention to your body. Our body is really an amazing thing and it will give you information. If you’re getting a knot in your stomach, turn it off. If you’re starting to feel anxious, give yourself a break. Your body is giving you information about how it’s receiving it.

This is why mindfulness is so great. It makes us pay attention to our bodies. And it’s also why fabric arts and knitting and running and all these stuffs is great too because it gets us out of that zone. It gets us more into the here and now where probably we’re okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned mindfulness, and I’m thinking about I was amused in our last interview, I asked you about a favorite book, and you told me, I’m thinking you said, “I haven’t read this book yet but it’s going to be my favorite. It’s Altered Traits,” because this is a topic you love and authors you love, so you know it’s going to be great sight unseen, which I thought was pretty awesome in terms of that’s how closely you’re following this stuff.

So, while we’re talking about mindfulness, maybe you can convince me and many listeners here, what were some of the striking research results coming from that book or elsewhere that you’ve seen to make say, “Pete, I am 100% certain you will see an amazing return on your time and energy invested in mindfulness practice”? Can you lay it on me?

Britt Andreatta
Okay. No tall task, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Britt Andreatta
Well, two things, boredom is a good emotion. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that being bored is bad. And yet, boredom is oftentimes where creativity comes from. Boredom is oftentimes when our brain makes those connections. Boredom is often calming for our system. So, let me just challenge the myth that boredom is a bad emotion. I think we want to cultivate a little bit of boredom in our lives. It’s not a bad thing.

Two, mindfulness looks a lot at different ways. So, for people like you and me, I can tell by just looking at the bookshelf that’s behind you right now that you and I both can, like, live in the world of the mind, and read stuff, and be into the study, and analyzing stat, like we live in the life of the mind. So, classical meditation is actually hard for me because my mind can really just chew on it. Physical mindfulness practices, like yoga, walking meditations, even doing the dishes can be mindful. This is why the fabric arts thing is really working for me because it gets me into my body and out of my head.

For some people, getting into their head and doing the traditional meditation of just kind of watching your thoughts and letting them go, that’s really valuable. So, each of us needs a different type of mindfulness practice. There’s a lot of different ones out there so play with them. Please don’t just give one class a try and say, “That’s not for me.” Try different formats and try a couple of different teachers because you’re going to find the one that makes you go, “Oh, yeah, that feels good. That made me better having done that.”

In terms of mindfulness, why you want to explore it, the research is pretty damn convincing and pretty darn consistent. It really does amazing stuff to us. So, there’s some immediate benefits that you get in terms of lowering your blood pressure, but that’s only if you’re in a mindfulness practice you enjoy. If you’re in one that’s rubbing you the wrong way, your blood pressure is probably going to go up. But, generally, when we find the right one, blood pressure goes down, our body gets into a more relaxed state.

The more we practice mindfulness, the more we can stay at a calm state, and even if we have an upsetting event, we don’t escalate as high as we would have before having that mindfulness practice. So, our highs are not so high. And we come back to stasis faster, being able to achieve that calm state longer.

In addition, it’s doing all kinds of things physically. Like, people who have regular mindfulness practices have lower risks of heart disease, have lower risks of age-related decline, there are just some good stuff that happens. And here’s the kicker, they’re actually showing that you live longer with a mindfulness practice, that the chronological age of your body shifts.

And so, one of my favorite researchers on this, Richard Davidson, one of the co-authors of Altered Traits which did turn out to be my favorite book, I was right. It’s amazing. Anyway, he has put Tibetan monks on MRI machines, like, he’s taken the people who have thousands of hours of meditation under their belt, and then he’s compared them to people who have never meditated. And what was astounding was some of these monks who probably are like world-class champions at meditation, they are many decades physically younger than their actual chronological body.

Pete Mockaitis
Many decades, like three, or four, or five?

Britt Andreatta
Yes, like it helps you live longer. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, but our DNA strands have these little things on the end, they’re kind of like the tips of the shoelace.

Pete Mockaitis
Telomeres?

Britt Andreatta
The telomeres, I can’t pronounce it correctly but there’s these telomeres things at the end. And as we live, those get shorter and shorter. And they say that, basically, that they predict how long we live. And when you kind of run out of the ends of those things, you’re ready to die. Well, people who have regular mindfulness practice, those telomeres tips, they slow down, they don’t shorten as fast for those people who don’t have mindfulness practices.

So, literally, the body, the brain was built for a mindfulness practice of some kind which is why you’ll find a form of it in every religion and every culture, it’s just that we’ve all kind of forgotten that, and so we’re kind of having to come back to something our body was built for. And I would just say, Pete, give it a try. Find the right channel. Find the right teacher, but don’t give up till you get one that makes you feel good.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And I’ve gotten into some good grooves from time to time with, well, so, Simple Habit is a sponsor, and I think they’re great and I really enjoyed working through those. And I think it’s almost like any other positive habit like exercise or you name it, in terms of like, “Oh, I get on the wagon, I fall of the wagon,” so there’s that. Okay, cool. Well, go ahead.

Britt Andreatta
Well, I wanted to answer, I wanted to say one more thing when you asked me the question of, “What were like some big key findings?” So, I got into creativity, and there’s one more I wanted to highlight which I think is relevant here, which is our bodies can repair themselves in ways that are just astounding researchers.

And a couple of the things that have really developed just in the last decade is you can take people who are paralyzed and have been paralyzed for years, and using the right kind of neural stimulation, you can regrow the nerves that have been damaged. And so, they’re actually seeing people that have been paralyzed walk again. I have seen videos; the research is outstanding.

And so, there’s some things that we’re learning about our bodies and the ability of our bodies to regrow nerves, and it’s more that we just haven’t had the right knowledge to work with how the body can do it but now researchers are starting to get that ability. So, some of the things that I was seeing in the research was just neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, the ability for our nerves to be flexible and also to grow new ones is truly astounding. And so, yeah, if a paralyzed person can stand up and walk again, I can probably learn a new habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Britt Andreatta
There’s no excuse for any of us to say, “I can’t do it.” It’s really about, “Do you have the right teacher? Do you have the right motivation? And are you willing to put in the time?” But if you get enough habits under your belt, if you get enough repetitions under your belt, you really can rewire most parts of your body in significant ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. So, whew, boy, we’ve covered a lot of fun territory. Let’s see. Talk about learning again, so let’s hear, we’ve hit a few strategies associated with connecting things to an existing schema if you want to have some creative ideas, having some gating. I’d love to get your take on what are some of the most powerful learning strategies you’ve discovered that just make a world of difference in terms of what you absorb and remember and are able to, in fact, apply in life.

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, one of the things that came out in my researching the second edition was our understanding of memory has actually changed a lot in the last five, six years. And scientists have actually identified that there’s nine different types of memory, okay? So, there are some memory we know of, like when we are trying to learn something academic and we’re studying facts and figures. That’s one kind of memory. It’s called semantic memory.

There’s a different kind of memory which is embodied memory. It’s called episodic. So, if I was studying about France and studying facts about Paris, that would be semantic. If I went to Paris and was standing at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, about to enter the Louvre, I would now have all these sensory pieces of data that would be part of that memory.

No surprise here. Episodic memory is the most enduring. It’s the one that is the stickiest because it’s tied in our memory banks to a whole bunch of experiences and sensations not just, “Did we memorize it?” right? And then there’s some memory that’s kind of unconscious to us, stuff like the Pavlov dogs thing, right? We can create cues and get somatic responses. Habits, you know, when we do something over and over again, our basal ganglia turns it into a habit. That just becomes something that we can cling to and we don’t really have to think about it.

So, part of when you’re thinking about learning is to think about, “What kind of memory am I working with here?” and then build the learning to align with the right kind of memory as opposed to sticking the same approach. So, with that said, this is really pointing to why virtual reality is a gamechanger, particularly for certain kinds of things to learn, that when we can take something and literally put on a headset and be in the physical space, our brain takes a VR experience and codes it as a lived memory.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome.

Britt Andreatta
And it responds to being in that setting as if we’re really there. So, it’s tricking the biology enough that your brain really feels like it’s in that setting, and so then it’s coding it as a lived memory. So, VR has the potential. You wouldn’t use this for everything but certain things, like when you have people who need to learn a dangerous task, having them build up experiences in a safe environment is really important. Or when people need to learn a physical space and it’s not easy or safe to get them into that physical space, they can build the memories of the space in a virtual environment.

And, certainly, things that are about people, like having empathy or having emotional intelligence. When we are in a headset dealing with another person, that is also lived memory, so we can gain some of those skillsets. So, I would say virtual reality, because of how it’s aligning with our biology, is really worth looking at and, realize, it’s evolving quickly.

So, if you tried a headset a year ago, it was a little wonky back then. It’s already better and it’s going to get better every six months, so just keep trying it. But I think a VR strategy should be part of every organization’s learning plan for the future.

Pete Mockaitis
So, VR, interesting, you know, new tool available. And then let’s say if we don’t have that and we have kind of the basics in terms of audio-visual stuff, PowerPoint, keynote, projector, laptop, videos, audio, flipcharts, whiteboards, talking in person, these things.

Britt Andreatta
You’re going to run through the whole list, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, a few more. So, if you’ve got the traditional tools, and based on how people learn, how might we choose to, say, deliver or structure a presentation or a training differently such that more is absorbed?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. One of the things that I like to say is our body is built for learning. Like, we’ve been learning for hundreds of years before we ever had any of these technologies. So, what’s cool is we’re designed to learn from each other. Mirror neurons are specifically designed for observational learning. So, we’ve been learning each other since we were chasing down the woolly mammoth on the plain, watching each other do it. The original PowerPoint was the cave drawing, where we, “Okay, we all gather over here and we’re going to go do this,” and sitting around the fire and telling stories.

So, learning is innately in our DNA. We learn from each other, we learn through story, narrative. I always say, whatever you’re teaching, build it into a story because the brain is built for story. Whenever you can, show and tell. And then, more importantly, let people do it. This is where people fall down a lot. I’m not kidding, I’ve gone into Silicon Valley and sat through a two full day manager training where they’re spending thousands of dollars to take people “off the job” for manager training. and great visuals, great content, and yet there was no practice. Not one minute of practice.

[39:25]

Pete Mockaitis
Anything.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, I mean, practice is how we change our behaviors, it’s how we change our habits, so you got to make sure that whatever behavior you’re trying to drive, whatever that looks like, what kinds of words and actions do you want to see out there, have them do it in the room and make it safe to make some mistakes, and do the coaching and the improving in the room. Because once people get strong in the room, they’re much more likely to go do that back out in the fields or on the floor, or wherever they have to go do their jobs. So, make sure that your learning elements have those pieces to it.

Then in terms of what kind of technology you’re doing learning through, it just depends on what you can afford and where your audience is. If they’re working globally, you’re going to need to be leveraging video conferencing and some digital assets. If you’ve got people in the room, then you could be dealing with a whiteboard and some conversation. So, I hesitate to tell people, “Go out and invest in a bunch of stuff,” because good learning can happen anywhere. You can make great learning out of any tools that you have.

And then, because of observational learning, I would say, if you have the ability to use video, it’s great because you can show people stuff and make that scalable because you videotape it once and then a bunch of people can see that. And so, scalability comes down to if you invest in something, then that may be usable by a lot of different learners over time. But all those bells and whistles don’t get you away from building good learning with aha moments and driving behavior change.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, thank you. Tell me, Britt, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Britt Andreatta
I would say people learn best when learning is chunked in 15- to 20-minute segments. What we have found is that human attention span really can’t focus for longer than 20 minutes. So, even if I’m running a half-day program, it’s all done in 15-minute content pieces broken up by processing of activities and practice sessions. So, string a bunch of bite-sized stuff together to make a longer learning event, but don’t talk to people for more than 20 minutes because they just can’t retain it, and then they’re not going to have the thing that you want to push into their memory.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say processing activities, I guess I’m thinking of all kinds of interactive exercises that can take a while, but I imagine you’ve got a couple processing activities in mind that might just take a minute or two. What are some of those?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, absolutely. Literally, it can be as short as take one minute and jot down some notes about how this applies in your own life or memory you’ve had with this, right? So, you’re just asking them to attach it to something. You can give them some kind of reflective questions to answer or a conversation to have with a partner. They could take a quick assessment. I kind of always do like five-minute activities, one- to five-minute activities. They don’t have to be long. But it basically just says, “This thing that you just learned, play with it for a minute.” And when you play with it for a minute, you’re naturally pushing it and attaching it to your schemas, you’re naturally personalizing it a little bit. And then the brain can be ready to learn more.

But if we keep giving people more content, not only does their attention span wane, but then they have more and more and more to try to attach to something, and then they’re going to miss some pieces. So, chunk it. Chunk it into bite-sized experiences. It doesn’t have to be big and showy. Literally, a couple good reflective questions or a dyad conversation and you’re good to go.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Britt Andreatta
I love this quote from Robyn Benincasa, she’s a world champion, and she says, “You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like that. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’m still into what’s happening with mindfulness. I think that continues to be a great place for us to explore. But I’m really interested right now in kind of sense of purpose and innovation. So, I’ve been doing a lot of research on what drives innovation and also the brain science behind having a sense of purpose or a meaningful life, so those are some things that I’ve been really digging on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And we mentioned Altered Traits. Any other favorite books?

Britt Andreatta

I’m really enjoying Bill Bryson’s current book called The Body. It’s just really interesting research about our whole internal working, but he’s also a comedian so he makes it really funny, so I’m enjoying the science behind that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Britt Andreatta
You know, PowerPoint is my go-to thing for everything but I also have been doing a lot of video editing with Camtasia, and so those are two tools I use frequently to do the work that I do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate; folks quote it back to you often?

Britt Andreatta
I recently heard from some folks who went through the change training and they just said that they found that they were able to apply it to everything, not only work changes but personal changes. Even just kind of our response to things that are difficult in our life, that that’s a type of change journey as well, and how we resist. So, I oftentimes get people who email me and say, “Hey, thanks for sharing that. I now really see all the ways that I’m resisting or people around me are resisting, and have some new ways to try to help people move through it.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Britt Andreatta
My website is the best place to go BrittAndreatta.com. Everything I’m up to is there. And then I love it when people connect with me on LinkedIn. I really do enjoy my community of folks on LinkedIn, so please connect with me. I’d love to hear from you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Britt Andreatta
I would say give yourself permission to have a break. We need more breaks than we need more to-do lists. So, put down the device, go find your knitting or fabric art or running, or whatever gives your brain a break, and just let all this stew around for a while so that you can have some aha moments tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Britt, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun and all the ways that you’re growing and learning and connecting and doing your thing.

Britt Andreatta
Thank you so much, Pete. I love connecting with you. I love your podcast. I love your audience of learners. We’re all part of the same tribe. And I’m excited to stay in touch.

494: How to Train Your Brain for Maximum Growth with Dr. Tara Swart

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Dr. Tara Swart says: "Visualization...primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by."

Dr. Tara Swart explains the science behind neuroplasticity and how to train your brain to brave any challenge.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to use neuroscience to break out of your comfort zone
  2. The six approaches to problem solving
  3. Simple tricks to turn around terrible work days

About Tara:

Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach, and award-winning and bestselling author. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improve their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and retain information. She is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management where she runs the Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience programs, and is an executive advisor to some of the world’s most respected leaders in media and business.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Dr. Tara Swart Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tara, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Tara Swart
Pete, thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited about this.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited too because neuroscience stuff is always super fascinating and you are at the forefront of some cool research and teaching at MIT and elsewhere. So, why don’t we kick it off, if you could share with us maybe one of the most fascinating or recent discoveries that’s come out of neuroscience?

Tara Swart
Sure. Well, the one that I focus most of my research on, because I think it’s the most fascinating, is about neuroplasticity. So, we used to think that by the age of 18, our brain had grown and changed and that our personality was pretty much set by that age. We know now that there’s massive growth from zero to two, that there’s a lot of pruning of neural connections in the teenage years, but that the brain actively molds and shapes itself to everything that we experience, every smell, every person that we meet, every emotion that we experience until we’re about 25.

And that from 25 to 65, we have to actively do things, learn new things, expose ourselves to different experiences to keep the brain as flexible, or what we call plastic, as possible. And if you start making some changes in your late 30s to early 40s, you can even contribute towards reducing the decline in some cognitive functions that starts to happen around the age of 70. So, when I first started understanding this really well, it just opened up a whole new world of what you’re capable of doing, and it turns around that whole idea of self-limiting beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious then, so if you’re over 65, what happens then?

Tara Swart
Well, I think that a lot of people worry about their memory changing and they think it’s like the first signs of dementia or something, and people get very stressed about that. And they focus on it. What actually happens from 65 onwards is that, sure, some of the pathways that relate to, for example, sequential memory, so the order of the things happening, they do change. But, actually, we have a more super sophisticated pathway to our wisdom and intuition. And my view is that we focus on our changing strengths and we access that wisdom and we outsource our sequential memory to our devices.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I already do that.

Tara Swart
Yeah, me, too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, neuroplasticity, I’ve heard the term before and people are really excited about it. And so, practically speaking, what does that mean for us? So, our brains are continuing to change shape and we can have some impact in how they’re changed. But so, practically, in terms of, I don’t know, skill-acquisition, or learning capabilities, what does that mean for us?

Tara Swart
There’s two main things, and I want to focus on the skill acquisition, actually. But I do want to say before that, that if we don’t think about neuroplasticity then our brain is being changed by things that we’re not conscious of and, personally, that’s not something that I would really like to happen. So, I’m very conscious of what I watch on the TV, what I read in the news, who I hang around with because I’m just so aware that all of those things will be having an effect on my brain.

That aside, in terms of proactively bringing change and flexibility into your brain, it’s really about continually learning, well, learning and/or exposing yourself to new things. And the reason for that is that change will happen around us, and some people can find that really stressful, and some people seem to ride that change more easily. The more that we’ve done to introduce change and, therefore, inoculate ourselves against the stress of change, the more easily we’ll be able to deal with those things that can come from left field both at work and in life.

Equally, things like learning a new skill, and my favorite analogy for this is learning a new language. It’s a physiological process in the brain like building a road from a dirt road into a highway, a tarmac highway that you can speed down. That’s basically starting to learn a language where you have a few words when you go on vacation, all the way up to becoming fluent in Spanish, if that’s the language that you choose.

And what I really love about it is that the language thing is easy to understand. Yes, if I use an app or I get lessons, I can learn a language. It applies to things like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, things that seem much more intangible but when neuroscience tells us it’s exactly the same process in the brain, it feels much more doable for people.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to hear some more about what you said, you said if we are introducing changes, then we become more resilient to unexpected stressors and things that happen to us. What’s the story here?

Tara Swart
Basically, anything new or anything different is seen as a threat by the brain, so the more that we are proactively introducing our brain to new and different things, the less stressful it will be when something happens at work or in life that comes from left field that we didn’t expect. So, we’re essentially increasing our comfort zone with new and different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great and handy. Now, I’m wondering, can we overdo it in terms of we become sort of like addicted to the novelty and, “I need to be entertained and have new inputs all the time or I’m sort of like unsettled and anxious”?

Tara Swart
That’s a really good point, and I think sometimes what is an issue here is a set of words that we use in neuroscience and how they translate to real words. So, for example, when I say, “You want to make your brain more plastic,” people can take offence at that because we don’t want plastic in the ocean, do we? We definitely don’t want it in our brains. That just means flexible in neuroscience.

And similarly, novelty is not that unhealthy novelty that you’re talking about that we can get addicted to just constant stimulation. It’s just about the way the brain views something new or different. So, we prefer to be in our comfort zone, we prefer to default to our strengths, and it’s really about just pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and increasing the toolkit that we have in our brain for different ways of thinking and different things that we’re able to do. So, that’s what I mean by novelty in this sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, are there some cool studies that suggest just what is the impact of habitually doing that versus not? Sort of what’s at stake or the consequences here?

Tara Swart
I think what’s at stake is really just staying the same, and then something happening that you didn’t expect, and us finding that really, really difficult to cope with, and us having to draw up deep on resources that we didn’t know we had. What we’re doing if we take on new learning throughout our lives, like a language or a musical instrument, or just listening in a different way to how we’ve been listening before, is that the brain is more like moldable material so that when something suddenly changes around us that we didn’t expect, we actually know what that feels like and we’re able to go with that more easily.

And, actually, it starts from birth. If you’ve got young kids, bringing them up bilingual or multilingual is one of the best things that you can do for what we call their executive functions later in life. So, executive functions are things like being able to regulate your emotions especially in stressful situations, being able to think flexibly or creatively, and being able to solve complex problems.

There are studies that show that children who are brought up bilingual are better at that later in life. So, we’re not going to get the same benefits as starting bilingual from birth if we haven’t got that already, but we’re trying to emulate that in our adult brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, some things are connecting here. We talk about executive functioning and our ability to have a plastic or flexible brain for stuff that shows up. We had a chat previously with the CEO of Korn Ferry, Gary Burnison, who talked about how learning agility was like the top thing in terms of a competency that predicts executive success, and there’s a few ways you could find learning agility. But it sounds like it’s very much in this ballpark of, “How do you figure out what to do when you have no idea what to do?” It’s sort of like there’s no script or playbook, you’re in a new situation and you just kind of got to figure it out.

And so, if you have, in a way, gotten some comfort with being uncomfortable and not having a clue, but having kind of gotten it figured out time and time again, you’re better equipped to handle it again when the next thing happens.

Tara Swart
What I love about your podcast series is listening to these perspectives from people from all different industries and backgrounds. So, if you’d asked me the same question, I would’ve said the ability to adapt, to be adaptable, and have mental resilience, which is either to cope with change or bounce back from adversity. And, to be honest, I think he’s just using a different word for exactly the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so that’s exciting and I know I’ve had that experience. I’m thinking about sort of my early consulting career, like I had no idea, “Hey, Pete, figure this out.” Like, I don’t know. I just don’t even know where to start, and then I’d say, “Well, I guess it might make sense if we check out this and this and this.” And before I knew it, I had a decent plan. And then you do that dozens of times and it’s okay. It’s like, “Yeah, I have no idea what we’re going to do next, but history and my experience has taught me that that’s fine. That, through time, we will get to the bottom of things and all is well.”

Tara Swart
Pete, that already tells me a lot about your brain because if you think about somebody who relies solely or strongly on logical thinking, they could really struggle in that scenario. Ask somebody who relies solely or strongly on creative thinking or motivational thinking, what you’ve done is actually it comes back to the learning agility piece, which I call brain agility, is you have probably seamlessly worked through several different ways of thinking because you know that one of them will give you a solution even to something that you don’t know.

So, logic relies on things that we know and that we’ve learnt formally. Intuition relies on wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life. But there’s also empathy, there’s the brain-body connection, there’s staying resilient and motivated, and there’s creative thinking. So, if you’re able to work through those, at least, six different ways of solving a problem, you’re so much more likely to come up with a solution than if you’re just relying on one or two main ways of thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really like how you’ve laid out a bit of a framework there. Can you give us those quick six bullet points there in terms of we might approach a problem six different ways? Can we hear them again?

Tara Swart
Yeah. And I actually like to put them in a certain order because I believe that logical-technical thinking is so overrated in modern societies. So, obviously it’s there and it’s important, but I like to start at the top, mastering our emotions because, to be honest, if you get too emotional or you don’t understand the impact of emotion in a crisis situation, that can really unravel you.

So, I would say that the six are mastering your emotions, trusting your gut or your intuition, listening to your body, making good decisions which is the logic, staying motivated and resilient to reach your goals, and using your creativity to design the real-world outcomes that you wish to have.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when it comes to tackling or solving a problem, it might fall into any of these or all of these is kind of sounds what you’re suggesting, is that some are more… line up readily with one of them, and others you really want to take maybe a multifaceted approach to get to the bottom of them. Can you tell us a bit about the distinction between trusting your gut and intuition versus listening to your body?

Tara Swart
Yeah, sure. So, listening to your body is actually a sense that we have that not many people have heard of which is called interoception. So, just like the five senses that we all know about, and even that sixth sense, intuition, which we’ll come to, interoception is the acknowledgement of the physiological state of the inside of your body.

It’s how, for example, our kids learn to tell us when they’re hungry or when they need to go to the bathroom. So, you recognize a feeling that you need to go to the bathroom. This is about recognizing slightly more intangible feelings like butterflies in your stomach, or the little hairs on your arms standing on end, or nervous laughter, or blushing, or sweating. So, it’s just being much more aware of our bodies than we can be when we’re super busy and focused on an important deadline.

Intuition, separately, is accessing wisdom and life lessons that we’ve picked up. So, more of a combination of physical and emotional feeling, what we know about how we lay down information in the brain and the nervous system is that we keep at the top of our mind or in the article or text the things that we need to do to live our life and do our job every day. And that’s commonly known as the working memory. Deeper down in the more limbic part of the brain, which is the emotional and intuitive system, are our longer-held habits and behavior patterns.

Deeper still, we believe, in the brain stem, the spinal cord, and in the gut neurons, we hold the wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life, because we can’t remember every single thing that we’ve experienced in life, but obviously we learn from these experiences. And that’s how we see patterns where, perhaps when we were younger and less experienced, we wouldn’t have noticed them before. So, it’s more about recalling patterns from the past that you’ve built up through life experience. Whereas the listening to your body is very visceral.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, with what we’re picking up from our bodies, what are some, I guess, if this then that, like almost recipes with regard to, “If you’re noticing that something is twitching or your hairs are standing up, you might intuit or take from that sort of this signal”?

Tara Swart
There are some really specific ones and I think there are some that are very much down to the individual. But one that I actually talk about a lot with my coaching clients is about how to recognize magnesium deficiency in the body. So, statistics show that 75% of people in the modern world are depleted in magnesium supplies in their body.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Tara Swart
No.

Pete Mockaitis
And that is harming our sleep, I’ve learned elsewhere.

Tara Swart
It’s harming our immune system and it’s increasing our stress levels. It has wide-ranging effects. When we’re stressed, we leach magnesium from our system. So, a little bit like if you’re training for a marathon, you would eat more protein. When we’re stressed, we need to supplement our magnesium levels.

Now, how do you know if you’ve got high levels of this stress hormone or low levels of magnesium, they tend to go together? A really, really obvious way of knowing is if you ever get that little twitchy eyelid or tiny little, yeah. Whenever I say that, everyone says, “Yes, I know what that feels like, and I get it sometimes.”

Sometimes it can be cramping in your feet or just twitches in your fingers or toes but that’s quite a solid sign of magnesium deficiency, and many people wouldn’t know that. But if you do know, you can go and take your magnesium supplement and, hopefully, reduce your stress levels and stop the negative consequences of that on your immune system and your resilience.

An extreme one, to be honest, Pete, is that I’ve done a lot of coaching in financial services since 2007, and I’ve worked with way too many people that said, “Yes, I was getting chest pains for months but I never thought I would have a heart attack.” And I’ve worked with men and women in their 40s to 60s that have had mild heart attacks or tragically people who’ve seen their colleagues drop dead on trading floors.

So, that’s the extreme version of not listening to your body, but there are so many smaller things that we can listen to, whether it’s that we’re not sleeping right, or we’ve got these twitching muscles, all the way down to just, “Do you feel drained when you spend time with a certain person? Do you feel energized when you work on a certain project?” and really using that to choose what you do and who you do it with.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Thank you. And so then, I want to get your take then. So, this sounds great with regard to we’ve got a number of approaches we can take to solve a problem, our brains have neuroplasticity, that capability. So, if we want to do some smart rewiring of our brain and thinking, how should we go about doing it? We talked about like a language, or a musical instrument, or some other novelty that we can pursue. But I’m wondering, what are some of the obstacles or things, best and worst practices, I guess, when it comes to making sure we’re molding this plastic brain?

Tara Swart
So, I think it’s really important to say that something like learning a language or a musical instrument is very attention-intense. So, it’s inevitably going to distract resources from the day job or your work-life balance. So, I only really recommend something that major when you absolutely have the time and space to bring those things into your life. There are lots of small things we can do even when we’re stressed or busy that really help towards cultivating this more flexible brain and mindset.

So, for example, journaling is a very simple practice, something that hopefully most people could fit in a few minutes most days of the week. And what that does is really raise from non-conscious to conscious any behavior patterns that might be barriers to your success. I have to say that when I’ve done a regular journaling practice, which I have spent six months or a year at different times doing it religiously, I don’t necessarily always do that now, and I’ve read back over three to six months-worth of what I’ve written, it’s quite shocking to see your own handwriting and your own thought processes repeating over and over again where you totally expect a different outcome from doing the same thing.

And we’ve all heard about this, but when you actually see it in your own handwriting, you are compelled to try to do something different in the future. And, therefore, it’s actually a really good way of accessing your intuition and seeing where it works when you go with your gut and maybe where that was not the right thing to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us some examples of, in your own journals or those of others you’re aware of, how they said, “Holy smokes, this is there and I didn’t even notice it before. I’m going to do something different now”?

Tara Swart
Yeah. So, I’ll give you a small example of my own from something we’ve already talked about which was that twice a year I go to MIT Sloan to teach and I often take my journal with me because I have more time there, I’m not with the family and everything. And I was journaling, and then I thought, “Oh, I wonder what I wrote when I was here six months ago?”

So, I looked back specifically to the time that I was in Boston, and I had recorded that I was having that twitching eyelid, and I was actually having it again at the time. And so, I worked out that travel, jetlag, just being in the plane, just being in a different environment, was causing me some stress. And so, I just became much better at making sure I took all my supplements before I traveled, carrying my supplements with me, and just increasing the dosage of magnesium whenever I was traveling. That’s a tiny thing.

I would say at the other end of the spectrum, the biggest thing I’ve heard clients and friends talk about is when you’ve been in a bad relationship for so long that you still don’t leave. And when you just think about it in your mind, it’s easy to disregard that you have the same nagging doubt over and over again. If you actually recorded in writing, it becomes just so much clear. It’s really raised in your consciousness. And I know that it’s helped so many people to not make that same mistake over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think the same thing can go when I need to fire somebody, which fortunately is rare. But it’s sort of like all those little things, like, “Huh, this is weird.” It’s like, well, you know, you can sort of make a quick excuse or rationalization or justification in the moment for a one little thing, and you sort of forget that you did that before, and then before that, and then before that. Whereas if you had a log, it’s like, “Wow, we have 50 incidents of this and many of them following the same patterns and many of them we’ve discussed numerous times. I guess this isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Tara Swart
Absolutely. When I talk about a bad relationship, I mean, either personally or at work, also bad relationships with yourself, so, for example, alcohol is an obvious one. But if you want to get more psychological, then the inability to say no is one that hugely gets clarified by journaling.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say journaling in your own hand, this has come up a couple of times, are you a big advocate for using handwriting as oppose to digital means? And why?

Tara Swart
I am and I’m not. I mean, I would rather that people were journaling digitally than not journaling at all, if you see what I mean. I think I’m probably just of the age group where there’s something to the handwritten or we might talk later about vision boards where I say it’s a collage made by hand, but obviously you can now do it digitally. So, again, it’s better to do it than not do it.

I’m a huge fan of technology but I do think, for example, that if you create a vision board and you keep it on your device, you would just less likely to look at it than if you actually have a physical vision board in your bedroom or in your office.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk a little bit about visualization in particular. So, I want to get your take on what’s that doing to our brain and the effects we might be able to harness from it.

Tara Swart
So, you know how we talked about anything new being sort of threating to the brain. What visualization does is it makes you go through a scenario or imagine a certain event or an outcome, and because when you visualize it, when something similar happens in real life it’s not as threatening because you’ve already seen it in your brain.

Now, there’s various bits of research on visualization in the brain, there’s so many that I’m actually just wondering I’d love to get through them all. But, for example, if somebody is in a coma and you ask them to imagine playing tennis, it actually activates the parts of the brain which are active when somebody is physically playing tennis. So, the whole movement parts, the hand-eye coordination, the social elements, it actually activates, just visualizing it, even if you’re in a coma, activates similar parts of the brain.

We also know that just the act of knowing that something is possible, which is half won by visualizing it in your brain, makes it more likely that you can physically achieve it. So, visualization really comes originally from sports science. And the classic example there is of a human running the sub four-minute mile. So, at one point we did not believe that that was not physically possible. When Roger Bannister first ran a mile in less than four minutes, within two months, seven other athletes ran a mile in less than four minutes. So, that’s not quite visualization for yourself, but it’s knowing that something is possible. makes you able to achieve it. And that’s kind of what visualization relies on.

My favorite story about visualization is a study that was done on people in their 80s. So, three groups of octogenarians, one group was just asked to carry on living like normal for a week, they were the control group, one group were asked to reminisce about what it was like to be in your 60s, and one group were actually moved to homes that resembled their home 20 years ago. They had photos in the home of themselves 20 years ago, and they had their visual aids and walking aids removed if they weren’t something that they used 20 years ago.

Both the reminiscing group and the active group showed improvements in their visual acuity and muscular-skeletal coordination after one week. And the reminiscing group results weren’t as dramatic as the people that actually lived it, but they were quite significant in themselves. So, there’s just so many examples of what people don’t traditionally think of as visualization.

But just tying it back to where we started, I actually call a vision board an action board because it’s not that you can make imagery of what you want in life and just wait for it to come true, you have to actively do things to make that more likely. But one of those things is to look at this board and visualize it actually becoming true.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we are going to do some visualizations for a goal, let’s just say someone wants to be promoted to a leadership position in their company. So, if that’s the goal and we want to do some visualization, how might we go about doing that optimally?

Tara Swart
So, there are actually some exercises in the book that focus on becoming our best selves as it were. If you specifically wanted to focus on getting a promotion, then, although I call it visualization, I would say that bringing in all the other senses is important. So, it’s literally like doing meditation. You would spend a certain number of minutes as frequently as you can during the week, you could even start with one minute and build it up to five or 10, or 15 minutes, and you would imagine yourself in that corner office, wearing that suit or whatever represents you reaching that leadership position, and you would visualize who’s around you, what does it look like to be in that position, what does it feel like in your body and in your mind, what does it smell like, even what does it taste like, like the taste of success.

And you would basically envision it until you can almost feel it through your five senses and in your body, and you would build up that practice, as I’ve said, to longer and longer periods of time so that, for example, when you go for a job interview, it doesn’t feel so alien. One of the things that I encourage, from neuroscience research, is apply for jobs that you don’t even think that you could get, even if you get a bit more interview experience so you get more advice on your resume. It’s all building up to it becoming more likely in the future. Essentially, what visualization does is it primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s nicely said. And when you say longer and longer periods of time, how long are we talking?

Tara Swart
Actually, the latest research on meditation shows that transcendental meditation for 20 minutes twice a day is really ideal. So, that’s not actually that long. I mean, I’m still building up to that myself. I’m not going to sit here and say that I am meditating for 20 minutes twice a day because I’m not. Although I would say more and more of my clients are actually doing that now.

So, I think if you start with 10 minutes, you try to do it most days of the week, you get yourself to daily, you either do 10 minutes twice a day or you increase it to 20 minutes once a day, it’s literally building that pathway in your brain from the dirt road to the highway. It’s just smoothing the path, deliberately practice something, repeating it until it becomes more natural in your brain.

And then, with both meditation and visualization, you can just switch it on when you need it. That’s the lovely thing about things like journaling and visualization, that if you get the foundations right, it actually becomes like a superpower that you can use when you need it.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say transcendental meditation, is that something other than what I’m thinking of when I think of meditation, focusing on breath and such?

Tara Swart
Transcendental meditation specifically means use of a mantra. It’s a religious practice that you can be ordained into, but in terms of remaining secular and focusing on leadership and business, I ask people to think about a recurring insecurity or anxiety that they have, like, “I’ll never get that promotion,” and to create their own positive affirmation that overturns that insecurity. And then you can use that in your meditation.

So, even if you just use it when you have that negative thought in your head or you sit down and repeat it for 10 to 20 minutes, either way it works. I think creating that personal mantra, you can go and receive a mantra from somebody else but I think a really good way for leaders to use is think, “Okay, what’s the insecurity that holds me back?” And then to create a mantra that helps to reframe that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the mantra could be, “I am fully capable of doing that job.”

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, is it just that simple, something like that?

Tara Swart
Just literally that simple. Whatever works for you in your words. So, just what you’ve said, every one of your listeners could go and just tweak that for their own wording and what really means something to them and use that to set a mantra, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I want to also get your take on… so you’ve got some pro tips, I understand, for if you’re having a bad day, you’re not feeling it, you’re tired, you’re grouchy, you’re irritable, you’d rather just be in bed. What can we do to turn things around in a hurry?

Tara Swart
Okay. Well, ideally, you would make sure that you’re well-rested and well-fed and hydrated, and that you have a regular meditation practice. But on a day that maybe you haven’t been doing all of those things, I tend to run through a list of things that usually kind of time-sensitive, and think, “Okay, I’m feeling tired and grouchy, and this day is not going how I want it to. Do I have time to drink a glass of water?” Usually, that’s a yes. “Do I have time to do 10 minutes of meditation?” That might be a yes, it might not. So, if you don’t, maybe you could just do a quick positive affirmation.

If you have more time, “Do I have time to go outside for a walk or a run?” Oxygen is one of the major resources for our brain and our thinking. If we have more time, “Do I have time for a nap?” That’s usually a no. But let’s say you have a really important interview coming up and you did actually have the afternoon at home to prepare for it, if you’re super tired, if you actually haven’t slept, and that might be a really good thing to do. Again, this is very individualized.

Do you just use caffeine? I don’t recommend drinking too much caffeine or having any caffeine later in the day, but if you’ve got an important meeting or interview, you might want to have a shot of caffeine just for that temporary boost. If you’re looking longer term than that, then things like eating blueberries, having a spoonful of MCT oil or coconut oil are short-term things that we can do to boost our brain. Ideally, we’d be doing those things longer term, keeping our brain in ideal physical condition to really draw on our mental resources.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that idea of how much time do you have and just sort of having the lineup of these things. And it seems like there probably, again, some universals for all people that are good to do. And then I imagine some particulars with regard to, “Oh, boy, if I listen to whatever music, then I am raring to go.” So, I’d imagine there are some real benefit into taking some time to write up your own, “What’s my one-minute, five-minute, 10-minute sort of hitlists?”

Tara Swart
Music is a really good one so I’m pleased that you mentioned that because I forgot to, and I also agree with writing up the list. So, for some things, I’ve been writing a list for so long that I don’t need the list anymore. But, at first, I had a list of positive statements when I needed that boost. I had a list of accomplishments for when I needed a slightly longer term, “Yes, I can go for that promotion,” kind of self-project that you might work on.

Doing a gratitude list or something that can really like reframe you into more positive thinking. So, keeping these lists so that if your energy is really low, you can just go to the list. You don’t actually have to think it all up yourself is a really good idea. And whether it’s eat a square of dark chocolate, speak to a friend, listen to some music, you’re absolutely right, all of those things can work for different people, and you need to know what the right things are for you and the right timescales.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, sometimes what I like to do is, usually Twitter is no good, but there’s this account You Had One Job which just is ridiculously hilarious, I think, in terms of like people doing road signs just wildly incorrectly, or mislabeling things. It just pushes all my right buttons and so fast, it’s sort of like, “Oh, there’s a joke. Ha-ha. Oh, there’s another one. Ha-ha. There’s another one.” And then it’s like, “Okay, well, that was good for three minutes,” and I’m back to something. And I’m now had a lot of laughing going on.

Tara Swart
I love the way that you keep intuitively hitting on these things that are backed up by neuroscience because humor actually has a massive effect on the brain. So, even if just using this by yourself, looking at Twitter and laughing to yourself has a good effect on the brain, but actually laughing with somebody else.

So, imagine you’re in just one of those tricky tense situations at work, shared humor has a really positive impact on the brain in terms of bonding, lowering our guard, making us more likely to collaborate. So, each of the things that we’ve talked about apply not just to ourselves, also in terms of how do you positively impact someone else’s brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Tara, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Tara Swart
I would say, we talked a little bit about what if you’re tired and grumpy, which, of course, we all have those days. I think that another really important area of research from neuroscience is around sleep. And. as a neuroscientist, I do find it quite disheartening that there are still high-profile leaders that will say, “I only sleep four or five hours a night,” just because of the impact that has on so many other people that feel that maybe they should do the same.

There’s a Nobel Prize-winning research now that shows that there’s a specific cleansing system in the brain called the glymphatic system that needs seven to eight hours to work. It needs seven to eight hours uninterrupted overnight. And that goes together with the stats that 98% to 99% of humans need to sleep for seven to nine hours per night. I think we’ve always wondered, “Why do spend so long sleeping?” And neuroscience really is giving some answers to that.

Obviously, I’d been a junior doctor, I travel a lot so I’m often jetlagged, and I don’t want people to suddenly think, “Oh, my God, I’m going to get dementia,” because that’s what the research shows if we disrupt that cleansing process regularly over our lives that it’s causally related to the onset of dementia later in life.

I just try to get eight hours of good-quality sleep as often as I can. If my sleep is disturbed, or jetlagged, or other reasons, I take the opportunity to turn myself onto my left or right side because that’s the most efficient sleeping position for that cleansing process to work. So, to me, sleep has loomed larger in important space on the research that we’re seeing coming out.

Pete Mockaitis
Wait. So, this is interesting. You’re saying that if we’re sleeping or just lying down on the side as oppose to on our back or on our belly, we’re getting more brain cleansing?

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh! Oh, I never knew that. Thank you. And I am into sleep, so that is cool.

Tara Swart
It was my challenge to come up with something that you haven’t heard about, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Tara Swart
The one that I find myself using the most is an Alvin Toffler quote, which is, “The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who can’t read and write, it will be those who can’t learn, unlearn, and relearn.” And, of course, this connects back very strongly to what we were talking about that logical-technical skills alone are not enough, that we need that brain agility and we need that neuroplasticity. So, it’s such an old quote that just applies so beautifully to the cutting-edge neuroscience.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research that you haven’t already mentioned here?

Tara Swart
Well, I think my favorite research is that research on the people in their 80s, but my second favorite piece of research is actually done on rats. It shows three groups of rats. One group that were kept in a confined space, which equates to having a sedentary job, one group that were forced to run on a treadmill for certain number of minutes or hours a day, which is the sedentary job person that drags himself to the gym at the end of the day, and one group were allowed to roam around freely during the day and do various types of exercise whenever they wanted to for as long as they wanted to. And that equates to the person who is mobile during the day and then, at some times, does exercise that they’ve chosen that they enjoy.

And we do see a differential effect in the brain when you do exercise that you enjoy. So, there’s two lessons here really. One is to not be sedentary. And if you don’t do any formal exercise, then just being mobile as much as possible is really important. Those two groups of rats, the two that exercised, they both got the benefits of oxygenation in the brain, but the voluntary exercise group released more of a growth factor in the brain called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. And that factor leads to not only connection of existing neurons in the brain but actually growth of new neurons in the brain. So, that’s a very exciting latest part to the neuroplasticity research.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Tara Swart
Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. I return to that book every time I have a big dilemma or unanswered question in my life because it uses metaphor. It always just seems to apply to everything.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Tara Swart
Definitely mindfulness meditation.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect or resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Tara Swart
I would say that psychology having informed business and leadership for so long left some things like emotional intelligence as very intangible. The analogy that I use from neuroscience of learning a language, or building a pathway in your brain for any scale, like even intangible scales like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, that is a thing that people have come back to me and said, “Once you put it to me like it was building a pathway in my brain, and you gave me the steps that I had to do to build that pathway, I felt like I could do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Tara Swart
Well, I’m very active on social media, so on Twitter @TaraSwart, and on Instagram @drtaraswart with D-R as the doctor. Yeah, I try to put lots of neuroscience-based facts and images out on those channels. And my book is available on Amazon and at all major retailers so, hopefully, you’ve enjoyed it and, as you know, there are many exercises in the book. I really do think that we need to take the time to step back and do those sort of self-development exercises.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Tara Swart
Yeah, I would say try to change 10 things by 1% rather than trying to change one big thing. So, go to bed half an hour earlier, walk around a bit more during the day, make whatever tweaks to your diet you know that you need to make, read a new book. Just pick 10 quick things, write them down, and just work through them over time. You’ll find much more cumulative effects and being awesome at your job than if you try to take on one big challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Tara, thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck in all the cool ways you’re molding your brain.

Tara Swart
Thank you so much. I hope you mold your brain too.

485: Learning like a Superhuman with Jonathan Levi

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Jonathan Levi says: "It's actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it."

Jonathan Levi shares how speedreading and visual mnemonics can enhance your learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The scientifically-proven method for speedreading
  2. How curiosity improves learning
  3. A simple trick to remember names and face

About Jonathan

Jonathan is a serial entrepreneur, author, and lifehacker born and raised in Silicon Valley.

He’s the author of the Become a SuperLearner series, and the host of the award-winning Superhuman Academy podcast. His passions include learning languages, musical instruments, acro yoga, weightlifting, and cooking.

He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel with his superwoman, Limmor.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jonathan Levi Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jonathan, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jonathan Levi
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. I’m really stoked to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m stoked to have you. And, boy, we’re talking about super learning, speedreading, memory becoming super human-type things. I think it’s going to be a ton of fun. But I’d love it if you could maybe orient us for starters. Like, what’s really possible for a human being with regard to some of this stuff? I know we got memory champions who dazzle us. But can you just sort of paint a picture for what happens in the highest echelons of human super learning?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. You know, no one’s ever asked me that.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just giving you a little softball to warm it up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Why has no one ever asked me that? I think the real answer is I don’t know, but I know what I’ve seen. I don’t know what the upper upper echelon is, but I’ve seen incredible learners throughout history, and I’ve made a practice of studying incredible learners throughout history. And the vision that I paint, and the reason my show is called Superhuman Academy, it used to be called Becoming Superhuman, is because I believe in a different model of super human.

And I think probably the prior generation, what I call superhuman, they would call a renaissance man or woman. Someone like Benjamin Franklin or, to go less cliché, someone like Thomas Jefferson who, like, “Oh, you know, I invented 15 different electronic devices. I discovered electricity. I, on the way, happen to dabble in diplomacy a little bit and helped entire countries form their revolutions, made huge advancements in democracy, learned six languages because no one was willing to translate the books, so I did it myself,” that kind of thing.

Built businesses, sold businesses, established entire organizations, and I think you see this throughout history. You see these people who are so multidisciplinary, and I think that, ultimately, if you ask me, “What’s the purpose of all of this? Why learn faster?” is to do that. It’s not really to go deep, deep, deep, deep, deep into one subject, though I suppose you could, but I think apropos, like how do you be awesome at your job? It’s being a multidisciplinarian. It’s being able to be someone who’s maybe in sales and already have learned your entire customer’s product pipeline.

I gave a talk to Shell’s 150 Top Salespeople in the World, and I asked them, “What’s your biggest challenge?” And they’re like, “We need to know more about our customers’ businesses than the customer knows themselves.” I’m like, “That’s a pretty big challenge because the customer focuses on one business. You each are managing five to 10 accounts.” But that’s what it is, and that’s what’s possible if you can learn and, more saliently, if you can retain everything you learn.

You can be a multidisciplinarian and from there things get fun. Then you can learn four to five languages. Then you can learn four to five different musical instruments. You can pick up different sports and habits, like acroyoga, or Olympic weightlifting, or speaking Russian, or piano. These are all things that I’ve just done in the last few years because you make learning a habit, you make learning a super skill, and then you make learning a hobby in a way of life.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s cool. So, your benefits there in terms of what’s possible is you could, is it fair to say, that most of us could become half as awesome as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin if we knew super learning approaches?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I think we could become just as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, what level is awesome?

Jonathan Levi
One hundred percent as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s exciting.

Jonathan Levi
And I’m right now reading a book called A Brief History of Everything, and I’ve read half the biographies out there and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and Elon Musk. I really geek out on the stuff. And sometimes I just think to myself, I’m like, “You know, it was easier back then because there were fewer people doing cool stuff. It’s like 1% of the population was college-educated and the vast majority of people couldn’t read. It was pretty easy to stand out as a brilliant genius.” So, I think we can achieve as much in learning. It might be harder to have an impact. Timing is everything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “You and everybody else knows five languages. Not impressed.”

Jonathan Levi
Bingo. And it’s like I was toldby a teacher, it was like the best thing you can ever do to be successful is to be born in the right place at the right time to the right parents. Everything else is like minor tweaks. So, being born on the cusp of like a couple different revolutions in a couple different countries in a time where democracies are forming. That’s pretty, like, you’ve got really great opportunities there that I think maybe we don’t have.

But then again, maybe 300 years from now people will go, “Gosh, I wish that I could’ve been born right when the world was transitioning from old industrial agriculture and ineffective means of energy production and pollution to renewables and sustainables. Gosh, they had so much more opportunity back then than we do now.” So, who knows, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, indeed. It can go either way. Well, so that’s exciting. So, we painted a big picture in terms of what may be possible. And I’d love to maybe zoom right in. So, what’s really nifty about your courses in helping folks become superhuman and super learning is that you could readily measure results with regard to, I mean, memory performance, speedreading performance, fast learning performance. So, could you share with us just roughly kind of approximate average before/after results that you see for your students in terms of what you do measure?

Jonathan Levi
So, I don’t have exact numbers for you but I can tell you from stuff that people publicly post in our Facebook group. Typically, when people come to us, they can remember exactly the average, right? Your short-term memory is kind of like four or plus or minus two. Sometimes we get someone who can memorize seven.

When people leave our course, the maximum we have them memorizing is like 20 random pieces of information and they all can memorize the 20. I can tell you that I pushed myself a little further because I’m kind of the poster boy and I can memorize 50 digits backwards and forwards without breaking a sweat. And the upper-echelon students that we have that have kind of gone on to take this more seriously, they are memorizing thousands of digits. Or, we had one guy go to a conference and memorized a 150 people’s names at the conference. And the conference was a two-day conference. It’s like, “How did you manage to have 150 conversations?” That’s the super skill there.

Pete Mockaitis
Really. When did you go to the bathroom?

Jonathan Levi
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
When did you go to get snack?

Jonathan Levi
Right. You probably were shaking hands and kissing babies, you know. But it’s insane what you can do. And we know, I guess I should preface by saying like we teach the exact same techniques that are being taught to win World Memory Championships. We scale it down a little bit because some of the things that are being done in competition are just not practical.

For example, in order to win a World Memory Championship today, you need to kind of have all the memorization work and setup done, so all you have to do is rearrange things. So, I’m not going to tell you, “Hey, Pete, go out and memorize 999 different images for all the possible different three-letter or three-digit numbers out there in the world.”

But we teach the exact same techniques in terms of how you actually do it, how you create these memories, how you organize them, how you structure them, how you review them. So, the world record right now for memorizing a deck of cards is under 13 seconds. The record, last I checked, this changes pretty often. Last I checked, the record for the number of decks of cards was 36 decks of cards in an hour. Pi has been memorized in 30,000 plus digits. It’s actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it. And that’s like the really big asterisk because most of us were never taught how to use our brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, that’s the memory side of things. How about the speedreading side of things?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so speedreading I always like to preface, not least, because people have been fined many hundreds of thousands of dollars for false advertising in speedreading but also because of those individuals, people have a lot of misconceptions about what speedreading is. So, it’s not reading a page a second, at least not the way we teach it, which is the way that’s based on science.

It’s not reading one page with your left eye and the other page with your right eye. It’s not photo-reading. It’s not any of that. The research is very clear and I encourage people to visit our website SuperHumanAcademy.com/science. We actually hired a PhD in neuroscience who recently was on a Nobel Prize-winning team for some of the work that they did in memory.

The research is very clear that comprehension drops at 600 words a minute. Coincidentally, the speedreading that we teach, we tell people, “You can get up to 600 words a minute with the amount of comprehension that you’re getting or higher because of the memory techniques that we implement, and you can get up to 800 words per minute with around 70% to 80% comprehension.” Again, there are sometimes things that you need to read that you don’t really need 100% comprehension.

But, with all that preface, I do want to say memory techniques are kind of like an operating system overhaul. Or, to choose a different metaphor, it’s like completely changing out the engine and transmission. Whereas, speedreading, I found, in my experience and the experience of over 200,000 students, is more like a specific tool, and you’re not going to use it all the time like you use memory techniques. You’re going to use it when you need information quickly, when the joy of reading is not the most important part, and when you’re not going to be doing it for extended periods of time.

People always ask me, “Okay, you can read 700-800 words a minute. That means that you can read the average book in 90 minutes.” And I say, “Yup.” And they say, “Do you ever do that?” And I say, “Only once or twice because after that I need like a three-hour nap. It’s exhausting. It’s absolutely exhausting.” So, I always like to give people those caveats because it’s an incredibly powerful tool. It got me through business school. It’s the only reason why my email inbox is not completely overflowing, and why I am able to keep up on a lot of the research, I hate to say all the research, that’s being done on neuroscience and learning. But it’s not what a lot of people have marketed it as.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so funny, Jonathan, I was debating with myself, it’s like, “All right, if this guy comes on the show, it’s like he can do 10,000 words per minute. How much am I going to rip into him? Am I going to do it gently or viciously?” You know, that’s what I was thinking.

Jonathan Levi
Viciously.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Okay, will I just quietly cut that out because I know it’s wrong?” But I love it. You gave me all the right answers. Not that I know all the right answers in advance, but I’ve kind of dabbled and researched a bit in terms of like what’s just impossible. And I love the integrity here in terms of hiring a doctor, getting into the mix, and sharing the constraints and limitations. Like, hey.

Well, first of all, it would still be awesome to double your reading whenever you need to. That’s still a huge benefit. But, note, if you want to really enjoy what you’re reading, and you do want to savor it, and you want to get full energy for everything else you’re doing in the rest of the day, then it ain’t the tool for you to pull out in that moment. So, great visualization.

Jonathan Levi
And I want to say there are gradations, right? Like, I, after being trained in speedreading, before, well, there kind of isn’t a before. I had learning disabilities growing up so my parents bought me speedreading books when I was like 12. So, it’s hard to determine when my “before” was but I never could get it to work. And when I was tested at age 24 for my reading speed, I was reading in like 450 words per minute, whereas the average person reads 200 to 250 words per minute, if they’re college-educated. But my comprehension was 40%, so like what does that achieve?

Today, I can read that same 450 words per minute with near perfect comprehension. So, it’s not an either/or situation but it is…One of my mentors once told me, “The best speedreaders are able to vary their speed, not just based on what they’re reading but in individual sections and sentences.” So, it’s like, “Okay, I know what’s going to happen in the section. Let me ratchet it up and I can read much faster. Whereas, okay, hang on, I’m really confused about this whole chapter on quantum mechanics. I’m going to bring it back down.” And that back down may still be 300, 400, 500 words per minute but with much higher comprehension.

When I created our original course, I came at it from this whole perspective of, first of, I was taught to speedread by two different teachers and it never worked for me because it’s the classic Woody Harrelson, like, “I read War and Peace in an hour and it’s about Russia.” But, also, understanding that the ultimate timewaster is chewing air. It’s even worse to read fast and forget everything you’re reading than it is to just read it slowly. So, we focus on comprehension.

And, truthfully speaking, over the last six years, we’ve made the comprehension and memory and retention parts bigger, and speedreading part smaller, and we’ve moved all of the comprehension and retention pieces up earlier on in the course because it’s just, time and time again, that’s what transforms people’s lives in our courses.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s dig into a bit of the how here. So, how does one boost their comprehension when they’re reading?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, that’s a great question. First thing you can do, and I think your listeners will appreciate this because I haven’t talked about this in 5,000 other interviews that I’ve done over the last six years. Many people don’t realize how important preparation is overall, and I’m going to explain two different aspects of preparation. And both of them are going to seem like, “There’s no way that works, this is fluff. Give me the good stuff.” This is the good stuff. Don’t worry.

One, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. And so, if you just pick up a book and you don’t stop to ask yourself, “What am I trying to get out of this book? What level of comprehension? Am I reading it for a specific piece of information, for enjoyment?” That’s going to change the way that you pay attention. It’s kind of like setting goals, right? If you don’t have goals, you kind of just coast, like, “What are you doing, right?”

So, going in with preparation, and preparation also means like having a backup plan. Like, what are you going to do if you don’t understand the text? Are you going to reread it or are you going to ask someone or are you going to look it up somewhere else online and see if it’s explained more clearly? So, having this backup plan and knowing exactly what you want to get out of the text.

In my next book, The Only Skill That Matters I go into much more depth about this conversation of preparation and give people kind of a flight checklist of, “You need to answer these questions before you dive into learning.” Part of the reason that this works so well is we know a lot about the way that the adult brain learns and the requirements for learning. And we know that adults learn best if they know why they’re learning something, how they’re going to use it, and if they’re going to use it immediately, which is a nice segue into the next kind of preparation piece, which is something we call prereading.

Prereading comes from this reading methodology called SQ3R – Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review. When you do prereading, you survey and question. You’re looking at the text very, very quickly and kind of skimming. You’re doing what I like to call reinforced skimming. You are looking for things that jump out at you – titles, words that are capitalized, numbers, headings, things that are italicized, long words, things that stand out, pictures, diagrams. And then you’re generating questions about those things.

For example, “Why are they mentioning San Francisco? What happened in 1949?” You’re generating all kinds of cognitive biases as well to try and get your mind to be curious. A human brain can’t resist a good question. And so, if you are able to generate questions and curiosity and, essentially, get yourself to the point where you actually want to read this text, even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want to read, you’re going to enhance your focus, which is going to enhance your comprehension.

Studies have actually shown that people who pre-read the text not only are able to read faster when they do read it, they’re also able to produce higher quality, more accurate summaries of the text, which is a proxy for how well they understood, retain, and were able to reproduce and recall the text. It’s a very good test for understanding actually how much of it sank in. And all that is from flipping through the pages, spending one or two seconds on each page before you read.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, with one or two seconds, I mean, you’re not really subvocalizing anything. You’re just sort of just getting a visual exposure.

Jonathan Levi
You’re barely comprehending anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, like those are words.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, you’re literally generating curiosity. And the beauty of this technique is that there’s kind no wrong way to do it. We’re in the process right now of building our certified coaching program and training our certified coaches. So, I’ve just gone through this whole thought process, and a lot of what we do, the trick is like, “I don’t know what’s going on in the person’s head and there’s a lot of like false flags that can happen and cognitive biases and stuff like that.”

But with this one, the test is very simple. Is the reader able to produce questions around the test? Like, if I have you skim, Pete, 15 pages, looking at each page for one second, and then I take the book away, and I ask you, “What are some of the things you want to know when you read this when I let you read this?” And you go, “Okay, I saw this thing in there. It was like hyper myalgia or something like that. I didn’t catch what that word is but I’m dying to know what it is and what it means, and why is it in the history textbook. Like, that makes no sense to me.”

Or, you come and you say, “Man, I saw the word vegan and I have a feeling I know what this author is going to say, and I have a feeling this is going to be that kind of text that my friend, Allan, really loves because he’s like a total vegan warrior.” So, you’re already generating questions, curiosity, and you go back to those three requirements that I mentioned. You’ve already done a lot of the work to prime your brain. And this comes from the theory of an early learning expert named Malcolm Knowles.

You’ve already told me how you’re going to use the text. You’ve already told me why it’s applicable and why you’re looking to read it. And, since you’ve already told me that you’re going to be using it immediately to talk to your friend Allan, or send it and rub the article in his face, so you’ve generated so much curiosity and questions, the other test is like, “Are you now eager and excited to read this text because…? Forget the fact that it’s about real estate law in the Netherlands, or something super boring like that. Are you eager to read it because you have all these unanswered questions?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And if you’re not, that might be an indicator right there. It’s like, “Well, do you have to read it?” Maybe you get all that done and move on to something else.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, yeah, that gets me going. I’m thinking now about Bob Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion. He sort of talks about how he figured out a formula to get his class like super engaged such that they would not even leave when the bell rang. It’s like, “Oh, it looks live we’ve cracked the code here.” And it was in that very thing, it’s about generating questions, like, “How is it that this occurred when this, this, and this were not working in their favor?” Like, “Well, I don’t know. How did that occur?”

And it’s just like any good story or movie or book, even like a mediocre one, like Lifetime Original Movies. There was a period in my life, I don’t know why, but they kept sucking me in, and they weren’t really good.

Jonathan Levi
This was before Netflix.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Cool. So, SQ3R, you brought it to life way more than I’ve experienced when I first encountered it, that it’s all about generating that curiosity and that eagerness so that your brain is amped, it’s primed, it’s good to go. So, what should we do after the prereading?

Jonathan Levi
Well, then you’ve gotten through the S and the Q, now you get to R. You do your first readthrough and, ideally, you speedread depending on your level of training, I guess, I would say. You speedread the text, and we can go into how all that works, or doesn’t work in the case of a lot of what you see online. And then after that, you pause and you review. You review the text. You close your eyes, or close the book, or look up at the ceiling, and you ask yourself, “What did I take away from that?” And you do this, you can do it at the end of every page, you can do it at the end of chapters, but you stop and you create visualizations, visual mnemonics.

This is huge because most people read once and expect themselves to remember everything that they read in that book forever. And that’s not going to happen even with the best mnemonic techniques. You’re only going to remember it for so long. What you need to do is spaced repetition. So, you close the book, you review, and then later on, ideally, ideally, you would test yourself on this knowledge.

I like to create simple tests for myself by just writing a summary for myself of the book, key takeaways and key points. And then after that, you continue to review. Periodically, you go in, look at your notes, look at your highlights, and just kind of refresh yourself. Look at your book summary. Because anyone who tells you, “I can teach how to memorize something once and remember it forever,” is a liar. Your brain is designed to forget things. It is highly efficient, in fact, at forgetting the things that you don’t use. So, if you want to remember something, you kind of need to review it and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a brief period of time which all of United States history made great sense right when I turned the A.P U.S. history exam in high school. And it was kind of fun and then it all left me. Alas! So, understood. So, if you don’t need it, it goes away. Got to do some reinforcing of it. Cool. So, that’s sort of the speedreading side of things. Any perspective with regard to like, “I stop send.” I saw a video of Tim Ferriss drawing some lines in on a book. Anything you want to comment in that world?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, absolutely. So, first, you have to understand that your eyes are not meant to read, right? And reading is great. I love reading. Me and reading are besties. But we are not really meant to process language visually and, therefore, reading does this kind of weird thing where you take visual information, which is these little squibbles on a page, which we’re super effective at consuming information in that way. We can not only assess someone’s face, and if we recognize them, but also the complex emotions on that person’s face in 150 milliseconds. It’s insane. We’re really good at picking up information visually.

But then what we do is we try to process language through that. That’s where everything kind of falls apart because we don’t process language that fast. And so, we subvocalize, which is an unavoidable thing because we’re meant to process language auditorily. And so, you have this kind of like whole mess of what’s going on and that’s why when you scan people’s larynx, even speedreaders that way.

Pete Mockaitis
As I do.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, as one does. You just put a sophisticated electronic equipment up to one’s larynx in your goings about, and you see that there’s electrical signaling when someone is reading because we’re kind of processing with our larynx. I’m not a neuroscientist and I don’t play one on the internet, but that’s kind of what we understood about reading.

So, there’s no way to avoid some subvocalization entirely but you can reduce it in the same way that we’ve all seen those stupid things posted, where it’s like, every word is misspelled but the first and last character is right so you don’t even notice or you can still read it. Or, situations where you see a paragraph of text and the word “the” is repeated every single time twice but you don’t even notice because you’re kind of on autopilot.

So, we can reduce subvocalization. And one of the ways that we can do that is by optimizing the movement of the eyes. When your eyes are in motion, when they’re making what’s called saccades, you’re actually subject to a phenomenon called saccadic blindness or saccadic masking. In other words, your optic nerve kind of shuts off while your eyes are in motion.

If you don’t believe me, you can put two fingers out in front of you, one on your right hand, one on your left, and then look at your left finger, and then look at your right finger. And notice that you kind of don’t pick up any information in between. Your brain stitches the pictures together.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny because we have our recording time are going, it’s actually moving, right? You see those red numbers moving. They totally disappeared. Yeah, okay. I’m with you.

Jonathan Levi
And that’s fine. That’s like really useful if you don’t want to fall over every time you like move your eyes. But what that means is while your eyes are in motion, you’re not taking in additional information. Most people, when they read, they make one saccade and one fixation which is kind of, think of a fixation as like an eye fold or resting of the eye. It’s when you’re fixated on something per word. And, therefore, there’s a lot of motion going on, and a lot of times spent in saccadic blindness.

You can never train your eyes to have a wider fovea, which is the focal area of the eye, but you can train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, the same way that someone who needs glasses can still kind of pay attention to what’s happening even though it’s a little fuzzy. You can do this with various different tools, and once you train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, in the perifovea, the stuff outside the focal optimal area, then you can start making larger saccades, moving your eyes only once or twice per line of text. Then we can optimize those even further so you waste less time and less of the fovea and perifovea looking at white stuff in the margins, and more time looking at the good stuff, the text.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say tools, is this like the writing of lines inside a couple words of the margins of a book or what do you mean by tools?

Jonathan Levi
Tools to expand your ability to take in information from the perifovea are called Schultz tables. And you can actually check them out at Games.BecomeASuperLearner.com. We have some free Schultz tables exercises that people can do. It’s quite fun. It’s like a Sudoku but you stare at the middle square and then you try, without moving your eyes, to pick up all the stuff in the periphery. Then you expand it, get bigger, make the number smaller, and you can actually train yourself to pick up stuff in the margins, which is pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. And we’re both genuinely enthusiastic about this. This is what makes a podcast great. It does sound like fun for me to do and I definitely plan on doing so. So, now then, you mentioned subvocalization, which is like the inner voice of kind of saying the words. You’re saying, so that still happens even though our eyeballs are taking in more words, we’ve got that tiny voices actually reading silently all the words that we’re picking up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Well, not all. Even people who aren’t trained in speedreading rarely subvocalize every word, like, and, etc. But for a long time, I thought I just need to get better and reduce it to the point where it doesn’t happen. And then I dug deeper into the research and realized a few different things. One, there’s no way to eliminate subvocalization. It’s just part of how we process the text but you can minimize it.

And, also, every once in a while, and by that, I mean like at least once a month. People like to send me a different research paper or article or study “disproving” speedreading, and I love these because almost invariably they prove the kind of speedreading that we’re teaching. They’re disproving the speedreading of 5,000 words per minute by saying, “Reading is limited in the most skilled and trained readers to 600 words per minute with perfect comprehension.”

And one of the things that they talk about is you cannot train your brain to read an entire page or even an entire line, it just can’t be done. You can’t read an entire line without moving your eyes. But they’ve shown in studies that when you block the stuff in the periphery, in the perifovea, so, for example, if you tracked someone’s eye on the line, and you essentially only let them read the word that they’re reading, and you don’t let them have what they call a preview effect, their comprehension and reading speed dramatically suffers even when the preview, even when the blocker is moving pretty much as fast as their eye.

So, it’s super interesting. It’s like this research that disproves speedreading is actually proving exactly this, that the perifovea is a critical part of reading, and you need to be able to see what’s happening. So, therefore, we should be able to optimize and train that piece.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, let’s say we shift gears a bit.

Jonathan Levi
I don’t know if that answers your question though.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, I dig it in terms of, yup, that voice is going to be going and there’s no way around it. But you may not have to articulate every connect a word in the inner voice, so that’s handy.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. And, again, one of the reasons why that’s so important is, first off, our comprehension is just better visually. We have better visual memory and better, as I said, we’re faster at comprehending things visually, but also, I encourage everyone listening to this podcast, go back a couple minutes, and if your app allows it, it probably doesn’t allow you to go beyond 3x speed. The reason for that is we can really only comprehend the spoken word in around 400 words per minute. And the reason most of these apps are limited to 2x speed is because you can’t really get every single word at more than 300 to 400 words per minute.

Now, I’m speaking about 150 to 160 words per minute so you do the math. 2x speed is 300, and see how comfortable that is. And then imagine another 50% on top of that. So, subvocalizing every word really just slows you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, let’s shift to the memory side of things. I’ve read some of the tricks associated with trying to memorize a list of things, “Create a ridiculous picture in your brain to connect them.” So, if I’m remembering iPhone and screwdriver, I might imagine like 100 screwdrivers dancing on my iPhone, and then I’ve connected that with this list. And then, numerically, turn each number into like a sound, like nine becomes a P or B sound, and then you can create words out of numbers, and then visualize them and link them together.

So, those are some tactics that I found kind of handy when I really hunker down and say, “Okay, I have to remember this list. There’s no means of writing this down. We’re going to go use these approaches.” But what I find tricky is faces, and I think all professionals can be enriched by this if we can put faces to names. So, Jonathan, I’d love to put you on the spot, how can we boost our memory for names and faces?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s actually people often ask me, like, what do I use this stuff for, and where has it made the most impact in my life. And I think they expect me to be like, “Well, I speak four languages and I learned two musical instruments in the last few years and blah, blah, blah, blah.” But that hasn’t impacted my life nearly as much as just always being able to remember names.

And one corollary of that is I can tell you all the waiters that has served me in the last two weeks. Today my waitress at the restaurant was Maya, and whenever I need Maya, like everyone else is shouting, “Excuse me,” or, “Check please,” and I just say, “Maya,” at normal speaking volume, and she whips around and I have my check, and it’s amazing.

But how do you do names and faces? Very simple. Same association and visualization techniques. In order to memorize something, first you need to visualize it, it’s going to be the vast majority of the benefit is going to come from visualizing everything that you want to remember. Creating these novel bizarre pictures that you mentioned, but then also connecting it.

Our brains function a lot like Google’s PageRank algorithm. They ask, “What is this connected to? How many other things is it connected to? And how important are those things?” Because there’s a lot of information hitting us every day and we need some way to figure out what is and is not important.

So, what I might do is, first, connect that person to someone else that I know that has that name, and figure out their commonalities, picture the two of them together, picture the two of them fighting, something absurd and outrageous. That might be easy. If their name has another possible visualization opportunity, for example, Mike, I might picture them doing karaoke and embarrassing themselves with a microphone.

Pete Mockaitis
With a microphone.

Jonathan Levi
Right. If their name is Ross, I might picture them bargain shopping at the store Ross, and on and on and on. If they have a name that maybe you don’t know, like Sangina, or Croshant, I would break it down and figure out a way to make it into some kind of visualization that I am familiar with. So, Croshant might become Croissant, and I might visualize him wearing a hat made out of a croissant, and then probably, hopefully, not going to call him Croissant, but if I do, I can say that I misspoke. And that’s how you do it. It’s visualizations and connections to preexisting knowledge.

Now, I’m probably never going to forget what a croissant looks like or what a croissant is. That’s a memory that’s like pretty deeply-ingrained for me especially because I have many memories when I was living in France of walking down the street and picking up fresh croissants, and maybe I could throw Croshant in with that memory. So, you pick things that are familiar to you, that are important to you, and then you incorporate those into, again, tip number one, your visualizations.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just how long does that mental process take?

Jonathan Levi
Fractions of a second if you’re trying to. Well, so Harry Lorayne once told me, this is going to seem like a tangent, he once told me that first thing to remember names and faces is actually paying attention to them. So, I do have to mention that because Harry Lorayne is kind of the godfather of modern memory improvement and he’s right. About this we agree. Most people don’t pay attention. So, first step is pay attention.

And second step is repeat the name back, because I cannot tell you these techniques are so incredibly powerful. You really don’t want to mis-remember someone’s name. I had someone who I thought I could’ve sworn she said Sharon. It was Shannon. For many weeks after that, I called her Sharon, and I never once forgot, by the way, to call her Sharon. They’re very powerful techniques. Make sure you get the name right.

In that time where you go, “Is that Croshant? Am I saying that right?” you now have given yourself one to two seconds which is more than enough time. Recently, at the same lecture for Shell, someone came up to me after I got off stage, and he said, “Okay, memory man, look at this.” And his last name was C, his nickname was C+13 because his last name had 14 letters, C plus duh, duh, duh. And it was pronounced Horechevsky. It’s like a long Polish name.

Pete Mockaitis
Horechevsky.

Jonathan Levi
And he said, “How do you remember that?” And I was like, in the time it took me to describe it, I already had it, right? So, I imagined people dancing the Hora, like Orthodox Jews with their black and white outfit, they’re dancing the Hora in a Chevy, and they’re like shaking skis above their head – Horachevsky. Like, how quick is that, right? All I did was just, “What do those three things sound like? Hora, Chev, Ski. Visualize that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Jonathan Levi
Now, I always talk about Horachevsky. I don’t remember his first name, he didn’t ask me to memorize his first name, I believe it was Jeff.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s funny is that I can imagine that maybe the first hundred times you do this you got to hunker down and think for a good, I don’t know, 20 seconds, “Horachevksy, okay. Boy, I’m going to go with a prostitute, I don’t know.”

Jonathan Levi
That works. That’s even better than mine. It’s more outrageous. Violent, sexual and kind of like disturbed imagery works even better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so you’ve got a turn of a phrase that I can’t resist, I got to touch on this. What’s the mnemonic nuclear option and how do we use it?

Jonathan Levi
Oh, yeah, this is a good one. So, the mnemonic nuclear option is my kind of fun nickname for the Memory Palace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How does this work out?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I call it the nuclear option because it’s kind of like, for most things, going to a water balloon fight and bringing in ICBM with a nuclear warhead. It’s like it’ll do the job. It’s probably overkill but it’ll do the job. If you’re learning three people’s names at a cocktail party, you probably don’t need a Memory Palace. It’ll work.

And what you do in the Memory Palace Technique, or Method of Loci, people may have heard, is you take a location, such as your house, your office, whatever, you take these visualizations that you’ve created of Mike on the mic, or Horachevsky, and you put them in places. That’s it. You put them on furniture, you put them in windowsills, corners. I like to put them in logical places based on what they are.

So, for example, the word for burn in Russian is stored on the stove. Makes a lot of sense. And just by doing that, because our brains are wired to remember location, it’s kind of part of your survival toolkit. If you don’t know where the winter food supply is, or where you buried something, or how to get to the watering hole, you’re kind of done from an evolutionary perspective. So, our brains remember locations really crazy well automatically. So, this is kind of just hijacking that, and it’s an incredibly powerful technique.

This is how people reach those achievements of Pi to 30,000 digits or a deck of cards in under 13 seconds. It’s insanely powerful. I think, out of all the hacks that I’ve ever learned, and I’ve done 240 something, 50 something episodes with some of the world’s top superhumans, this one is the craziest one, where it’s like, “I can teach you this, and in an hour of practice, I can ten 10x to 20x your memory.” It’s massive ROI.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess we’ve almost spent a whole hour on it, but I’ve heard of this. But, so, if I just like stick a person on the couch in my head, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem kind of very noteworthy to me. Like, do I need to make it ridiculous with regard to how they’re being placed on the couch? Or how do I make it?

Jonathan Levi
Let me show you how powerful this is. We’ll play a fun game. Did you move around a lot when you were a kid?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
And everyone in the audience can do this even if they did. Do you remember your childhood home?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
Do you remember your parents’ bedroom?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
That was probably the room that you spent the least time in in the house, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. What side did mom sleep on, left or right?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I don’t know if I know. I know where the little wolf puppet was that belonged to my dad, where was that post.

Jonathan Levi
Okay, where was that?

Pete Mockaitis
That was on the left side as I’m facing him, the left foot side.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. Do you remember, was there a table by the side of the bed?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
What was on that table?

Pete Mockaitis
There was an old-school alarm clock with red digital numbers. There’s usually a book.

Jonathan Levi
So, two things, was it a GE alarm clock, the red digital numbers?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m not sure.

Jonathan Levi
So, a funny story, I do this a lot to demonstrate. By the way, when was the last time you were in that house?

Pete Mockaitis
It was more than 13 years ago.

Jonathan Levi
More than 13. Did you ever sit down and go, “I better remember this red alarm clock”?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
Right. So, your brain does this automatically ranging from you can tell me what corner of your shower the soap bottles are in, like, the most mundane stupid things, all the way up to 13 years ago what was on the bedside table, and the room that you spent the least time in. The other funny thing, as I do this a lot as a demonstration, it seems like everyone’s parents had that same freaking alarm clock. My parents had the exact same one, it was like wood grain, red letters, GE. They must’ve made millions on those alarm clocks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. So, I’m with you. Fair enough, I’m remembering these locations real well. And so then, I can just stick new things there and they’ll be there when I revisit the location?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, and you do need to review. You can’t do it once and it’ll be there forever. Though some stuff that I put in there once randomly I can’t get rid of. That’s a whole different skill. But with very minimal review, it will stay in there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to make sure we get a chance to talk about a couple of your favorite things. Jonathan, can you give us a favorite quote?

Jonathan Levi
Ooh, I’ve got a few but I’ll go back to an old, old school one that I used to love, which is, “The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we’re loved, loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

Pete Mockaitis
Powerful. And how about a favorite book?

Jonathan Levi
I have to probably say Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so people can check out SuperhumanAcademy.com where we have hundreds and hundreds of hours of podcast episodes with the world’s top performers, online courses, free trials of online courses. We got a ton of stuff up there. And I would encourage people to check out my latest book coming out September 3rd, it’s on Amazon, and we can send a link to put in the show notes for you guys. And that is called The Only Skill That Matters, and it talks about all this stuff in a fun and engaging way, with stories and examples. My mom says it’s a really good read, so what more testimonial do you need?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I want people to go out today, and I want them, in their job, or in their day-to-day interactions, to learn the names, as we’ve discussed today, I want them to learn the names of 10 new people. And then I want them to remember those names, first off, and I want them to see what the impact in their life is of just getting to know 10 new people and learning their names, professionally, personally, or otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Jonathan, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best in your learning adventures.

Jonathan Levi
Back at you. Thanks so much for having me.