Nautilus

How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math

I was a wayward kid who grew up on the literary side of life, treating math and science as if they were pustules from the plague. So it’s a little strange how I’ve ended up now—someone who dances daily with triple integrals, Fourier transforms, and that crown jewel of mathematics, Euler’s equation. It’s hard to believe I’ve flipped from a virtually congenital math-phobe to a professor of engineering.

One day, one of my students asked me how I did it—how I changed my brain. I wanted to answer Hell—with lots of difficulty! After all, I’d flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. In fact, I didn’t start studying remedial math until I left the Army at age 26. If there were a textbook example of the potential for adult neural plasticity, I’d be Exhibit A.

Learning math and then science as an adult gave me passage into the empowering world of engineering. But these hard-won, adult-age changes in my brain have also given me an insider’s perspective on the neuroplasticity that underlies adult learning. Fortunately, my doctoral training in systems engineering—tying together the big picture of different STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines—and then my later research and writing focusing on how humans think have helped me make sense of recent advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology related to learning.

In the years since I received my doctorate, thousands of students have swept through my classrooms—students who have been reared in elementary school and high school to believe that understanding math through active discussion is the talisman of learning. If you can explain what you’ve learned to others, perhaps drawing them a picture, the thinking goes, you must
understand it.

Japan has become seen as a much-admired and emulated exemplar of these active, “understanding-centered” teaching methods. But what’s often missing from the discussion is the rest of the story: Japan is also home of the Kumon

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus4 min readPolitics
To a Cigarette Maker, Your Life Is Worth About $10,000
If you had to put a price on your life, what cash amount do you think it would be? What about $100,000? That was the amount, last June, that a group of kidnappers in Atlanta demanded in exchange for a woman’s life. Not high enough? Well, in a statist
Nautilus4 min read
What It’s Like to Be an Ant
Right now, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, there are lots of dead ants in the glass corridors of one of Anicka Yi’s biosphere-like dioramas. The shared nest looks like an oversized circuit board comprised of mirrors and glass tubes the ant
Nautilus17 min readPsychology
Chaos Makes the Multiverse Unnecessary: Science predicts only the predictable, ignoring most of our chaotic universe.
Scientists look around the universe and see amazing structure. There are objects and processes of fantastic complexity. Every action in our universe follows exact laws of nature that are perfectly expressed in a mathematical language. These laws of n