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A Mind for Numbers Book Summary – Barbara Oakley

Summary Table of Contents

Podcast Review A Mind For Numbers

What you will learn from reading A Mind for Numbers:

– How to improve your memory by applying different learning techniques.

– The ability to understand abstract information, e.g. maths.

– How to condense information to lighten up your cognitive load.

A Mind for Numbers Book Summary:

This book won’t just challenge your current learning methods, it will provides you with better alternatives.

A Mind for Numbers changed my view on learning completely. It was one of my first books I read on learning and it introduced me to the idea of self-improvement. There seem to be new methods of learning coming out all the time, but I can guarantee you that this is a perfect book to start on. 

The book itself is very well written, so easy to follow and everything feels like its been simplified down to the last point in order to make it as understandable as possible.

Barbara Oakley introduces us to the key principles on how our memory works as well as offering a bunch of methods in which to optimise our ability to learn, starting with Focus and Diffuse Mode.

Focus and Diffuse Mode

Our Brain thinks in two different ways, the focused mode and the diffuse mode.

To solve a problem, use focus mode first and then step away and let diffuse mode kick in.

Einstellung Effect: getting stuck in solving a problem as a result of becoming fixated on a flawed approach. E.g. only using focused mode (diffuse mode allows you to see other ways of tackling a problem).

The focused mode can sometimes shut out the reasoning capability of the brain, so make sure you take time out to diffuse so that when you come back to it you have a broader perspective of the problem at hand.

Part of the key to creativity is being able to switch from focused mode to diffuse mode.

When frustration arises from doing something, it’s best to step back and diffuse.


How Memory Works

There are two types of memory:

  1. Working Memory – You can have up to 4 slots of things that you can think about at once.
  2. Long Term Memory – Like a storage unit, the better you learn something, the less room it takes up in your working memory, which allows you to take in other things. However, you do need to make sure you come back and visit it now and then.

Spaced Repetition – where you revisit something over time to sink it deeper into your long-term memory.

Recalling Information

Recalling material when you are out of your usual place of study helps you strengthen your grasp of the material by viewing it from a different perspective.

You need to know ‘how’ a problem works and ‘when’ to use it.

Recalling is much more beneficial than rereading.



Habits are an energy saver. They allow us to free our mind for other types of activities.

Focus on the process not the product. E.g. Focus on reading not the challenge to tick another book off. The more you focus on the training, the less you will feel inclined to judge yourself (‘am i getting closer to finishing’)

Habits consist of four parts:

  1. The Cue – Starting it
  2. The Routine – Getting into the routine of doing it
  3. The Reward – What you reward yourself with for completing it
  4. The Belief – The belief in the previous three

Change a habit by responding differently or even ignoring the cue. E.g. looking at your phone.

Pomodoro Technique – 25minute undistracted then reward yourself.

Visualisation – by visualising the negative habit leading to a bad future outcome (e.g. not making it as an actor), you are attaching a negative feeling to the habit and therefore more emotional reason to give it up.



Chunks – Chunking is the idea that you learn all the details so well that you eventually don’t have to think about them in detail but in general, they are submitted into the long-term memory, hence creating a chunk of all the little details. That way making it more efficient for your brain to just think of a single chunk rather than 100 little things.

Chunking frees up space in your working memory to allow you to think of other things/details.

E.g. intermediate chess players will look at every move (the little details) and use their working memory, however expert chess players will see the board as a whole (chunk) and use their long term memory.

The more chunks you build, the better your intuition for problem solving becomes.

Chunking allows you to skip the thinking process and instead do things automatically.

How to Create a Chunk (detail):

  1. Work a key problem out by slowly understanding the method
  2. Tackle a similar problem, focusing on the key processes
  3. Take a break
  4. Sleep 
  5. Do another similar problem
  6. Add another similar problem – review the problems in your mind while doing some unrelated activity 

Chunking – focused attention, understanding the basic concept, practice to help you gain the big picture.

Understanding the basics first and chunking it allows you to learn everything else related much quicker as you have the previous knowledge and a chunk already made for it to be absorbed to.

Strong chunks form neural patterns that resonate not just in that specific subject but in others as well, therefore giving us a different perspective.

Mental Hooks: Skim chapters first to create mental hooks, such as categories to place ideas.


To Do List

E.g. loads of thoughts (e.g. math homework, gym, chemistry homework etc.) so much to do – the in turn takes up a lot of room in your working memory, but if you chunk all of those into ‘to do list,’ it frees up you working memory.

Break down your goals.

Write your to do list the night before. prioritise your worst things to do first.


Reward Yourself for the Little Tasks

By rewarding yourself after doing a task, you reinforce the positive attitude of getting the job done. Making it much less of a bother to do it the next time.

Don’t find excuses not to do things.


Memorise in a More Creative Way

Learn to use your memory in a more disciplined but creative way. 

By memorising things, you are storing them in your head, allowing time for your diffuse mode to go over them, reinforcing the chunks. The more you think about something, the stronger it becomes.

Use all senses to memorise. The more senses present when memorising something, the stronger the neural path.

To understand something better, try to contextualise it.

To move something from working memory to long term, it needs to be memorable and repeated.

Understanding is superglue that holds the underlying memory traces together.

By writing something down, you are strengthening the neural memory structure, this is because you (your body) is physically writing it too.

Metaphors allow something to seem simpler, this way enriching and strengthening those neural chunks.

More advanced students see with their minds eye the meaning beneath the equation, including how it fits into the big picture and even a sense of how the parts feel.


Abstract to Concrete

The mind doesn’t understand abstract things, so turn the idea into a visual metaphor or an analogy.

To learn maths and science, you have to be able to bring the abstract ideas to life in our minds.

Equations are just ways of abstracting and simplifying concepts. Therefore, equations must contain deeper meanings. So, learn to go backwards and reverse the abstraction of them.

Metaphors and physical analogies form chunks that can allow ideas from very different areas to influence one another.


Learning on Your Own Vs with People

Learning on your own is crucial as it improves our ability to think independently.

Learning with other people can give you a different perspective on the subject at hand.

To learn something more efficiently, try setting a timer for 25 minutes and then taking a short break to allow your diffuse mode to activate. This also helps a lot with procrastinating.



The Hard Start Jump to Easy Technique for Testing:

  1. When you start working out problems, start first with the hardest as your brain has the most energy then. If you get stuck, pull yourself away and focus on the easier one, this will allow your diffuse mode to work on the harder ones.

When anxious about tests, try to control your breathing and convince yourself positively about doing the test.

Testing is a good means of learning as it changes and adds to what you know and increasing your retention.

A Mind for Numbers Acronym

Visualised Quotes from A Mind for Numbers