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Barbara Oakley, PhD, is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University. Her research involves[…]

Join Barbara Oakley as she delves into the concept of “Einstellung,” a psychological phenomenon where our brains become stuck in one way of thinking. Oakley explains how this tendency to stick with what we know from an early age narrows our cognitive abilities, as unused brain connections are pruned away, limiting our potential to perceive and embrace new ideas.

Using her own personal anecdotes, Oakley illustrates the dangers of these echo chambers and the importance of maintaining open dialogues with differing viewpoints. She warns of the societal risks of polarization and the dismissal of opposing opinions, drawing parallels between historical and contemporary issues with fake news and the importance of critical thinking. 

Whether you’re looking to enhance your problem-solving skills or simply curious about the workings of the human mind, Oakley’s insights offer a path towards a more flexible and enriched mental landscape. Join us to discover how to break free from mental ruts and embrace a life filled with learning and growth.

Barbara Oakley: It turns out that it's all too easy for us to fall into a sort of rut in our thinking, and it can feel so comfortable, so good. We can feel so certain that it's right, that we can't even realize that we're stuck in a rut. Part of this is called Einstellung, this kind of effect, and that is this- you see one approach to do things, and you are convinced it's right. And even if it isn't the best approach, you just can't see other approaches because you've already locked in that first approach. And to some extent, we do that in everything we do in life, because as we grow, as we grow from infants and we're maturing, there are synoptic- we're born, and kind of our earliest years, we have lots of synoptic connections. And as we don't use some of them, they just wither away and die. 

So even by six months of age, what happens is you've lost the ability to even hear certain sounds of other languages because you haven't actually used those circuits yourself. So what you want to do in your life is you want to try to expose yourself to novel stimuli as much as possible. I mean, that doesn't mean that you have to like live a topsy-turvy life, but try things like sitting at a different place at the dinner table or brush your teeth with the other hand. 

And of course, travel is a great way of getting out of your comfort zone. One of the things that I think is very interesting is Nobel Prize winner, Ramón y Cajal, had said that- he's considered the father of modern neuroscience, and he'd worked with many geniuses and he said, "You know, I worked with these geniuses." And he said, "I am not a genius." He said, "What I am is persistent and I'm flexible when I see that the data is telling me something different than I thought it should tell me." So he was able to change his mind. Now, what happens with really smart people, those geniuses who Ramón y Cajal was referring to, is they're super smart. So they're used to being right, right? And figuring things out quickly. They tend to jump to conclusions, and they haven't had the experience of changing their minds when they're wrong 'cause they haven't been wrong that often. And what that does is that makes them less flexible in the face of changing data or even being more open to different ideas. 

So I think it's really important to try to keep yourself flexible, try to talk to people of differing opinions, listen to them. Of course, you'll be forming your own opinions, but you'll be surprised if you listen carefully, how you can find yourself being a more open and caring person just for the fact that you've listened. My background is a little different in that I worked for several years as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers. 

So it was an eye-opening experience for me because it allowed me to realize how easy it is for people to get in an echo chamber, where they have no idea that there are other opinions and other ideas that are outside their own echo chamber. So, I saw that on the trawlers that I worked on there was no exposure to Western ideas and Western thoughts. And so, they were convinced that all capitalists were evil, that people would, when they got to shore, they would be kidnapped and tortured and terrible things would happen to them. And of course, that wasn't true at all, and their conceptions of the West were completely wrong. 

Another thing was just that they were terrified of saying the wrong thing. It was truly a totalitarian society, where if you had wrongthink you were in big trouble. And to some extent, I see a little of that going on in our society today. People become very polarized because they only listen to news that relates to something that backs up the worldview that they have. And so, it's almost a little bit like the old days when I was working with the Soviets because there's this sort of groupthink that, "We're right," and also fear if you say the wrong thing amongst your group. And this is a dangerous sort of societal situation to fall into where you're not listening or talking to one another. And I think it's important that as much as possible to maintain dialogue between different ways of thinking about things. 

And as far as false news comes and fake news comes about... I'm familiar with fake news from decades past, right? 'Cause the Soviets were masters of fake news. And fake news can come from any source. And it's not just your side that's the source of the good news. It's both sides that can put out fake news. And so I think critical thinking involves not being totally vested in one side or another, but being able to step back and be dispassionate- and not be quite so emotional about the things you might hear in the news that are built to push your emotional buttons.