Monday, February 1, 2016

Learning How to Learn, Part 4: Renaissance Learning and Unlocking Your Potential

This post is a summary of the final fourth week the Learning How To Learn course at Coursera.

2 Tips for Better Learning from Terry Sejnowsky:

  1. Physical Exercise is by far more effective in helping you learn better than any drug
  2. Recognize critical periods related to learning and be prepared for them. Like first language acquisition is better done before puberty.
Learning does not progress logically, sometimes you hit a wall or get frustrated. It means you mind is wrestling deeply with the material. After emerging from these periods, you'll often find that you learning base has broadened a lot.

Create a Lively Visual Metaphor or Analogy!

Pretend that you are the concept you are trying to understand!

People learn by trying to make sense out of the information they perceive, not from having someone else tell it to them. Greater understanding results from your mind constructed the patterns and meaning.

Genius vs Creativity

Genius and intelligence are associated with a bigger set of working memory, but on the negative side, the ideas may be coming too quickly and may leave no room for better ideas.

People with a smaller working memory are often more creative, because they can more easily come up with an unusual combination of chunks.

Many people suffer from the impostor syndrome. They feel inadequate and are afraid to be found out.

Change your thoughts, change your life

Santiago Ramon y Cahal, a Nobel prize winner, noted that any person (even with average intelligence) can change their own brain (their thought patterns) so even the least capable can produce an abundance of harvest.

Taking responsibility for my learning

I do think I take responsibility for my learning and that I spend a lot of time practicing and studying. However I feel I do not make a lot of progress, perhaps due to lack of proper techniques, or perhaps due to my impatience. I solve problems pretty quickly. I like solving problems a lot, because it gives me a lot of satisfaction. But maybe I should take more time to try to generalize my experience, to form better, more stable chunks of knowledge, to think deeply about analogies and metaphors, discuss with others. 

I've spent so much time trying to learn different things in my life, but I often can't even remember the essence of most of those things, sadly enough.

On the other hand, I have achieved quite a lot in learning: I've mastered several foreign languages, I've had several different jobs in mathematics, telecommunications and software engineering in different subject domains, each with their own sets of concepts to grasp.

The Value of Teamwork

The rest of this final part is about testing.
Testing is a great learning technique:

- Do self-testing
- Check Dr. Felder's test preparation check-list!
- Hard start - jump to easy technique: read through all problems, start with a difficult one, then quickly jump to an easy one, and so forth, back and forth.
- Do 90 seconds of deep breathing before or during the test.
- Double check your answers from a big-picture perspective: does it really make sense?
- Get enough sleep before the test!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Happiness Week 4: Control vs Personal Responsibility

This fourth post in my series on happiness sums up week 4 of the study course I am following on called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment:
To see all the posts in this series go to

Week 4 of the course starts with the discussion of the topic of control seeking.

On the one hand, it turns out that people having control over one's life is a very important determinant of psychological and physical health and happiness!

Those with a greater desire for control:
  1. Tend to aim higher in life
  2. Tend to achieve more
On the other hand, we can't control everything all the time. 

Why being overly controlling of other people, lowers our happiness:
  1. Others don't like to be controlled by us. It makes them unhappy, which lowers our own happiness.
  2. It results in anger, frustration and disappointment when others don't behave the way we want them to
  3. Decision-making suffers
Why being overly controlling of outcomes, lowers our happiness:
  1. You are more likely to be frustrated when things don't turn out like you want them to
  2. The quality of your decisions is likely to suffer: superstitions, risk-taking
  3. If we obsess about outcomes, we are likely to sacrifice our health and our relationships
Antidote habit: Taking Personal Responsibility for your Happiness

It's about regulating our emotions and taking control of our feelings

Because our thoughts influence our feelings, we can regulate our feelings by controlling our thoughts

Anger is often preceded by thoughts that something is blocking us from achieving what we want
Sadness is often preceded by thoughts that something valuable is missing or lost
Anxiety is often preceded by thoughts or being uncertain or out of control

Pride is triggered when you attribute success to your actions or skills
Gratitude is triggered when you attribute success to somebody else's actions or luck

The higher the ability for internal control the lower the need for external control

Simple Emotion Regulation Strategies
  1. Situation Selection
  2. Labeling your emotions
  3. Attention deployment
  4. Cognitive reappraisal
Uncertainty and lack of control are important for enjoying life!

Leading a healthier life style:
  1. Eat right
  2. Move more
  3. Sleep well
Remember self-compassion and common humanity

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Learning How to Learn, Part 2: Chunking

The second week of the Learning How To Learn course is about chunking.

Chunking is about forming small mental patterns of meaning relating the material learned to a greater context. These chunks are committed to memory and are easy to retrieve when needed. They unite scattered information into retrievable conceptual units of meaning, so that we can think and perform actions smoothly without going into all the details each time.

Forming chunks:

  1. Focus and give your undivided attention to the information needed to form the chunk
  2. Understand the idea you are trying to chunk, use focused and diffused modes of thinking, practice, do it yourself
  3. Get context: not just how, but when to use this chunk, and when not to use it. How does it fit in the bigger picture
  4. Practice:
Bottom-up learning: chunkinghow to use a certain technique
Top-down learning: big picture: when to us a technique instead of some other one

Learning strategy: first go through the table of contents, headings and pictures to get a bigger picture (context), then dive into details. This is called a "picture walk".

Recall: mental retrieval of main ideas, is a lot more effective than rereading the material. Read the material, close the book, try to recall what you read.

Mind mapping does not often work, because it is difficult to connect ideas, before you learn them.

  • "Picture walk" through new material
  • Focus
  • Understand
  • Practice
  • Test yourself!
  • Make mistakes!
  • Recall material outside your usual environment.
  • Create a library of chunks
  • Chunking
  • Transfer
  • Interleave: mix different problems
  • Illusions of competence in learning:
    • Test yourself
    • Minimize highlighting
    • Mistakes are good
    • Use deliberate practice what you find more difficult
    • Einstellung: an old pattern may prevent a better solution from being found
Law of Serendipity: Lady Luck favors those who try

Scott Young, "Marco Polo" of Learning:
Self-Explanation technique: take a sheet of paper and try to write the concept down as if trying to explain it to somebody else. The parts that are vague are good indicator of where you need to improve on your knowledge
Find simple analogies and metaphors: like electricity and gravity (potential)
Develop projects for self-education: e.g. have a mission, try to set yourself interesting challenges, 
Online resources: MIT open courseware
Learn more by studying less: 

Amy Alkon, author:
Start doing things days in advance, so that you give yourself time to assimilate the information
Reading: it's ok to skip parts, write down main ideas (there are usually not so many of them)
Learning: read a few times, go to some other reference material
Sleep: nap, don't sleep too long, slow down your breathing

Some good piece of advice from a grandfather to a grandson:

Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds -- no more, no less -- to write down the most important points.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Learning How to Learn, Part 1

Along with a course on happiness, I am following a few more courses on, including one on mathematics, meditation, public speaking, as well as a recently completed physics course. Another import course I've started is about learning how to learn:,

Why I joined this course

I recently got a new software development job, but in a totally different subject matter, which is geology and 3D modelling. I find it fascinating, but there is a lot to learn about the Earth, how it was formed, how minerals are formed and how the can be found and extracted. I need a lot of understanding of the Earth geology, but also physics, mathematics and 3D modelling. So I am learning a lot every day.

Apart from that I have a life-long interest in mathematics, foreign languages, history and a ton of other subjects. But time is limited, so I need to make the most efficient use of my time while learning these things and pursuing my interests. I hope this course will help me do exactly this! I hope to master new learning techniques and strategies to be a more effective learner!

I am also thinking of organizing a knowledge sharing session on this topic at home with friends and at work with colleagues.

Week 1

Focused and diffused modes of thinking

The first week starts with an introduction into the topic of focused and diffuse modes of thinking. We typically use the focused mode when we, as the name suggests, are focused on executing a certain task, or focusing intently on something we are trying to learn and understand. It typically uses the already present pretty strong neural connections in the brain to link new learning to the already familiar patterns, strengthening already present synaptic connections. We use it, for example, when making complex number computations using familiar arithmetic rules. We may not know exactly ho to do a task, but we have a pretty good idea in what direction to go and which familiar techniques to use. It's like using a familiar road to arrive at a new destination.

A less know mode of thinking, the diffuse mode, is more relaxed and is related to neural rest states. It is typically invoked when we are faced with totally new concepts that we never thought of before. We do not only know which road to take, but we do not even know where to start and what thought pattern to use. In this mode of thinking, we can look at things broadly, using a big-picture perspective, travelling along new pathways. It's not about going into the details of the problem at hand, but finding a starting point. According to latest research, it's impossible to be in both modes at the same time.

I feel that I can easily go into the focused mode, I have an eye for details and can focus well. However, I often lack the big picture, a relaxed state of mind to examine things from a different, broader point of view. This seems to be exactly what the diffuse mode is all about! When faced with an unfamiliar problem, I tend to go into details too quickly, without sufficiently grasping the big picture or giving my mind the time and room to examine it from a broader perspective.

So the diffuse mode of thinking is definitely something I need to master.

Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison both used specific techniques to get into the diffuse mode by balancing between being awake and being asleep. The would relax in a chair and led their minds go free while contemplating a certain problem, and they would wake up just before falling asleep by dropping an object they would hold in their hand. Doing so, they were able to register thoughts and ideas otherwise not readily available to them. They would then take those ideas back into the focused mode.

It's important to be able to go back and forth between the focused and diffuse modes of thinking.


  1. Metaphors and analogies provide powerful learning techniques
  2. It's important and be able to use and to switch between the focused and diffuse modes of learning
  3. Learning difficult things takes time
Introduction into how the brain works

A good resource to learn about how the brain works is

Still very little is known about all the activity going on in the brain. Scientists rely on brain imaging techniques to study the brain.

There are a million billion synapses (connections between neurons) in your brain where memories are stored. Brain connectivity is dynamic and remains so even when the brain matures.

Introduction into procrastination

Everybody has issues with procrastination, because when you are working on something, it means that you are not working on something else.

When we think of something we'd rather not do, it seems that you activate the areas of your brain associated with pain. The brain tries to escape this pain by switching your attention to something else. 

But researchers discovered that not long after one starts working on what they don't like, that neural discomfort disappears.

This is how procrastination seems to work:
  1. First we observe something that causes us a tiny bit of unease
  2. We don't like it, so we turn our attention to something more pleasant
  3. We feel happier temporarily
The pomodoro technique is a simple tool to handle procrastination:
- Set up a timer for 25 minutes, get rid of any distractions, and focus! Then give yourself a little reward for a couple of minutes.

The distractions that I often drown into are reading (or watching) news and other (Coursera) courses. I've been using the pomodoro technique, and it really helps!

Practice makes perfect
The more abstract something is, the more important it is to practice in order to bring those ideas into reality for you. Even if the ideas are abstract, the corresponding thought patterns are concrete. When we first begin to understand something, the neural patter is very weak. Every time we practice this concept, the pattern is deepened in the brain, until it becomes permanent.

When studying something:
1. Study it hard by focusing intently
2. Take a break or change your focus to something else. During this time your brain's diffuse mode will work in the background and you with your conceptual understanding. If you don't do it (like when cramming), you'll become very confused, but will learn little.

Introduction to memory

We have two types of memory:
- Short-term operational memory (analogy with computer RAM)
- Long-term storage memory (analogy with computer HD)

Happiness Week 3: To Be Loved vs To Love

This fourth post in my series on happiness sums up week 3 of the study course I am following on called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment:
To see all the posts in this series go to

This third week of the happiness course is about:

Deadly sin: the need to be loved or go it alone
Happiness habit: the need to love and give
Exercise: creative altruism

To be happy it's crucially important to have the feeling of belonging, of being loved.

Harlow's experiments with monkeys have shown, that need for love can even be more important than need for food. When the need for love is not provided, we tend to be psychologically damaged.

Another series of experiments shows that agreement with others makes us feel that we have a better chance of connecting with them.

Loneliness increases the chance of not only psychological problems, but also physical illnesses.

Being needy for love, however, is not good for happiness, for these reasons:

  1. It makes you less attractive to others
  2. It makes you less respected by others
  3. It gets you into the wrong kind of relationships
  4. You lose respect for yourself.
Being avoidant sounds alluring in theory:
  1. It makes us feel independent and free
  2. It sounds like the kind of thing a mentally strong person would do
Being avoidant isn't good for happiness either:
  1. It goes against our (social) nature
  2. Avoidants get less cooperation from other people 
  3. Avoidants are less satisfied with the help they get from others
  4. They have the lowest level of job satisfaction
  5. They feel lonely and alienated
The right way to be is secure attachment (which is the middle ground between neediness and avoidance):

People become needy or avoidance because of the lack of love and attention as children, particularly in their first 1.5 years of life. But this can be changed! 

I, myself, am rather avoidant in many situations.

What you can do:
  1. Practice self-compassion: being kind towards yourself, particularly when feeling unhappy
  2. Practice gratitude: improving the quality of relationships that you have
  3. Practice kindness and generosity, and thereby strengthen the need to love (and give)
Spending money on others makes us happier!

Wow, what a finding! I always tend to feel otherwise :)

Those donating to charity were are happier people.

Why being generous makes us happy?
  1. We are hard-wired to be kind, loving and giving
  2. It makes us feel more confident and capable
  3. Reciprocity: when we are generous, others are likely to be generous in return
Ways to be kind and generous:
  1. Being grateful
  2. Doing good to others
Kind and generous people are more likely to succeed in their professions!

You want to be an "otherish" giver.

Reciprocity styles:

  1. Giver: what do I have to offer?
  2. Taker: what do you have to offer me?
  3. Matcher: seeking justice, fairness and equity
Givers are more likely to succeed! Givers are able to harness a lot of extra resources! But they are also found a lot at the bottom (self-secrificing, burnouts, etc.)

Successful and unsuccessful givers are differentiated by the ability to attend not only to the needs of others but also to their own needs. Successful people are "otherish" givers:

  1. They contain the cost of giving
    1. Am I the right person?
    2. Help multiple people at the same time
  2. Value extending strategies
    1. Allow themselves to feel gratitude, pride, etc.
    2. Say No at times
  3. See impact of your generosity
  4. Have fun being generous
Creative altruism exercise:

The idea is to do something kind to somebody, which involves some cost to yourself, is fun for both parties, and then watch their reaction.

1. What was your idea/plan?

Give flowers to my wife.

2. How did you execute the idea? Did you stick to the "3 rules for giving" (contain cost of giving, have fun, and register impact)? If not, why not?

I went to the market, bought flowers for my wife, gave the flowers to her and watched her reaction.

3. What did the recipient feel? In answering this question focus on what the recipient said/did when he/she experienced your act.

She really loved it, she said so and gave me a big hug and kiss

4. How did it make you feel? What effect did the entire exercise have on you?

It made me feel very happy!

My current happiness level is 21 out of 35 :)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Happiness Week 2: Chasing Superiority vs Pursuing Flow

This third post in my series on happiness sums up week 2 of the study course I am following on called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment:
To see all the posts in this series go to

Week 2 of the course discusses the second deadly happiness sin: Chasing Superiority and its counterpart habit of Pursuing Flow.

Chasing Superiority is about comparing oneself to other people as to how rich, beautiful, successful, famous, powerful we are, and wanting to be better than anybody else at one thing or another.

Reasons why we chase superiority:
1. To get others's approval
2. We feel good when we win
3. We feel we are progressing towards mastery
4. We have a greater sense of autonomy

Effects of chasing superiority on happiness:

Reasons why pursuit of superiority lowers happiness:

1. Social comparisons to others. There will always be people who are better than you, this leads to envy and separates us from others. Interestingly, we are most likely to feel envious when someone close to us does better than us on a dimension that's relevant to us.

2. Materialism. It is easier to compare oneself to others based on materialistic criteria (money, possessions, fame), rather than the dimensions that really matter (skills, talents, qualities), which are hard to gauge. And materialism makes us unhappy, because 1) it makes us lonely, separated from other people; 2) adaptation, meaning that satisfaction from materialistic possessions does not last long

3. Others like us less when we seek superiority. Because we become more self-centered and care less for others, and then others start caring less for us.

Yet many people think that: drive for superiority should lead to higher achievement, right? But this turns out not to be the case. It's been proven by various scientific experiments that higher incentive leads to worse performance when the task at hand requires conceptual, creative thinking!

The reasons for this counter-intuitive phenomenon is that the stress coming from the desire to perform takes away some of the brain's capacity, lowering productivity and performance at intellectual tasks. The pressure to perform may help to motivate us, but won't make us perform better and will lower our happiness level.

I personally have indeed a great desire and drive for superiority. And in many was now I recognize that it stands in the way of my performance, taking away vital energy needed to perform and making me worry about how others judge my work. But what's the alternative? The alternative turns out to be the experience of flow, something I have experienced on many occasions.

Flow makes us happy!

People are happiest when they do something meaningful. It also turns out that the common theme of people's meaningful experiences is: flow.

Characteristics of flow:

  1. Distorted perception of time: Time seems to slow down, but when the flow experience is over, time seems to have passed really fast.
  2. Lack of self-consciousness: you are so absorbed in the activity, that there is no excessive capacity left over to judge how you are doing.
  3. Intense focus on the present moment

When does flow happen?
  1. Flow happens in the border area between anxiety and boredom. When your current skill levels are slightly less than the skill levels required for the task at hand.
  2. The quality of a flow experience is much higher when the skills level is high.
Why flow enhances happiness
  1. Flow is enjoyable in the moment: flow experiences are meaningful, and people enjoy meaningful experiences. They also bring about new, creative, original ways of doing things.
  2. Charisma: when in high flow, you become more charismatic and more likable by others. Flow is not a finite resource, and is even contagious. It's not a zero sum like money.
  3. Flow leads to mastery
Why flow enhances success

Anyone at the top of their game in any field has experienced at least 10,000 hours of flow in their domain of expertise, which is roughly equivalent to 10 years. So rather than seeking superiority, you better think about how you are going to experience 10000 hours of flow-like states.

But how do we find out what to be a master at? As a kid, we seem to know what we want to be, but then we settle for a practical job that puts bread on the table. Practical job = a job in which our heart is not into it. We become automatons, doing jobs we don't find meaningful.

We can't be happy unless we experience flow on a regular basis, and we can't experience flow unless we do something meaningful, challenging and enjoyable.

How to get flow back into your life?
  1. Find yourself a hobby. But you need to challenge yourself, because flow only happens when you stretch yourself.
  2. Find flow at work by:
    1. Identifying your talents and nurturing them. Bend your job, take more responsibility, etc.
    2. Identifying what your community needs and find ways to meet those needs
    3. Identifying what you enjoy doing: spend a couple of hours every week meeting people who do what you would like doing, experiment
Mitigating drive for superiority


People believe that they need a lot of criticism and negative self-talk to motivate themselves.

When things are going badly for us, what we need is self-compassion:
  1. treating ourselves with the same kindness, care and concern as we would a good friend 
  2. recognizing our common humanity, every time we fail, it is an opportunity to connect with others
  3. mindfulness, being present with what is and accepting what is
Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-pity and self-indulgence.

How to practice self-compassion:
  1. Talk to yourself as you would to a good friend if he were in your situation
  2. Write yourself a compassionate letter
  1. Expressing gratitude strengthens bonds and relationships
  2. It forms a bridge between hubristic pride and connection
  3. Makes you feel other-centered rather than self-centered
  4. Helps you mitigate the need for superiority
  5. Helps boost happiness in many ways

The assignment for this week was to write a gratitude letter to somebody who has been important in your life. I wrote and gave my letter to my wife Luda!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happiness Week 1: Devaluing and prioritizing happiness

This post is second in a series devoted to the subject of happiness in conjunction with the study course I am following on called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment:
To see all the posts in this series go to

So in my last post I gave my preliminary definition of happiness as I understand it now. Knowing what makes you happy is an important prerequisite for a happy life. I also introduced the balloon analogy and the concept of deadly happiness sins (things that deflate the happiness balloon) and happiness habits (things that inflate the balloon).

Today we'll talk about the first deadly sin and the habit which counteracts this sin. The sin consists in devaluing happiness and the habit is about prioritizing happiness without pursuing it.

Devaluing happiness
is about sacrificing happiness for the sake of other thingsmaking choices in life that are not conducive to our happiness. For example, people may value relationships and personal happiness over money, but they would often make choices that favor money over other things, like when choosing a better paying job over a more fulfilling one. When asked about what they would ask of a genie who can fulfill any desire, only 6% ask for happiness, while the top 3 items people ask for are: money, fame and success, and relationships. In many studies, people often prioritize value for many over what they like most. Or people favor being right over being happy.

So there is a paradox, which we shall call the fundamental happiness paradox, which is the tendency to sacrifice happiness for the sake of the other, less important goals. Few people will readily admit to this. On the one hand, we think happiness is important, yet we sacrifice happiness for other goals.

Why Do We Devalue Happiness?

Reason 1: Harboring negative beliefs about happiness: 
1) happiness leads to laziness (while the opposite is actually true),
2) happiness leads to selfishness (while the opposite is true),
3) happiness is fleeting

In fact, happiness has a lot of positive effect on us.

Reason 2: Failing to define happiness in concrete terms

Fluency effect: we tend to like something more when we understand it more easily.

Defining happiness was the first assignment for this course, which I did in my previous post.

Reason 3: Medium maximization: the tendency to chase the means to happiness (or other end goals) and to forget all about the end goals itself (e.g. happiness). This is about chasing money, status and fame, which are medium rather than happiness itself

The happiness habit to counteract devaluing happiness is: Prioritize but don't pursue happiness

- Remind yourself regularly about what you really want in life, especially when making choices
- On the other hand, we should not actively monitor or chase happiness, because if you do this you are likely to compare your current level of happiness to where you ideally want to be, which may actually have an adverse affect on you. It's like trying to fall asleep.