A Mind for Numbers

Much to my surprise, it was quite a busy summer with a lot of time spent travelling between events. Everyone settling into the back-to-school routine has afforded me a little break and I've been catching up on my non-magical reading and there has been some really interesting stuff which I wanted to share. First up is Barbara Oakley's A Mind for Numbers. I've mentioned Barbara previously (with a h/t to the Inquiring Minds podcast for bringing the book to my attention) although I hadn't had a chance to read the actual book at that point.

Having spent about half my life being actively engaged in trying to teach people things — first it was karate, then math, and now occasionally magic — I have a rich appreciation for how difficult it can be to try and cram new information into even the most willing of human brains. One of the great epiphanies of my life, which I often credit whenever I manage to actually accomplish anything, is that the human brain, while amazing, is generally far less perfect than we often want to imagine. Performing magic routinely shines a brilliant light on this fact for me. So having humbly accepted that my brain is a second-rate problem solving engine knocked together by a little Darwinian natural selection, I can embrace resources like this which provide ways to work with the brain instead of against it.

Depending on how much you read this kind of stuff, the strategies contained here tend to sit on the border of "that's so simple I probably could have though of that myself" and there's lots of stuff in there I've been advocating to students for years. But simple and straightforward is often the most effective and this is good stuff.

The techniques in the book build in an interesting way on the work made popular by another book I greatly admire, Thinking Fast and Slow which magician Penn Jillette has called the best book on magic every written. Daniel Kahneman discusses the two general modes in which the human brain operates (which, with all the aesthetic refinement of a Nobel Prize winning economist, he poetically calls System 1 and System 2) and Oakley offers strategies for leveraging the way the brain naturally switches between the two modes to make learning a more efficient process.

It's also slightly unfortunate that the book is branded as a mathy sciency sort of things since its applicability actually goes well beyond those fields.