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May 17, 2017

SO BARBARA OAKLEY HAS A NEW BOOK OUT, Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential. It’s about learning and career-change later in life, something she knows a lot about firsthand.

Here’s an interview with James Taranto:

Learning beyond the classroom is the subject of her new book. She defines a “mindshift” as “a change in your outlook that occurs through intensive learning”—such as her own mastery of math and engineering. The book is filled with advice for people who are considering a career change or who seek to develop “an attitude of lifelong learning,” even in retirement.

“I got to travel all around the world and meet people who had made these kind of interesting, really sort of mind-boggling changes,” she tells me. One of them is Ali Naqvi, a Pakistani professional golfer turned marketing executive with Ogilvy & Mather in London. “He’s found that his past, which seems to be completely disconnected, is actually very relevant to what he’s doing.” Some of the ways are obvious—Ogilvy “does a lot of sports marketing, and he understands that world”—and others less so. “When you make a mistake in golf, you have to let it go, and move ahead, and do not think about these past mistakes,” she says. “He trained himself in that, and he’s found that it’s very helpful in the business world.”

Mr. Naqvi was like the younger Ms. Oakley, in that “he couldn’t do math either, then, through MOOCs and so forth, he learned.” That enabled him to master search-engine optimization, “the most mathematical of all the marketing stuff.”

Another of her case studies is Mr. Sejnowski, her MOOC co-instructor. In the late 1970s he was a theoretical physicist studying relativity at Princeton, the “bastion” of the field. His future seemed bright, but he worried that the capital costs of physics research—building supercolliders and the like—were so great that, in Ms. Oakley’s words, “there’s not going to be a way to really make progress in his lifetime.” He switched to neuroscience. “Everybody was like, ‘You’re nuts. Why on earth would you give up something like that?’ ” she says.

In her book, Ms. Oakley draws on Mr. Sejnowski’s expertise: “That allows me to talk about what’s going on from a neuroscientific perspective about, for example, how 1,400 new neurons are born every day in the hippocampus, and here’s what you can do to help nurture them. Learning actually serves as a sort of trellis to allow those new neurons to survive and thrive and grow.”

She also interviewed ordinary people who’d made a “mindshift.” Claudia Meadows was a bus driver who suffered from depression. She “hit bottom and decided to use learning to try to get herself really out of it—not just drugs and so forth, but to really try to reprogram her brain. And by golly, she did it.”

How do you strengthen your mind as you age? Some of the answers are what you’d expect. Physical exercise helps encourage neuron growth. Some forms of meditation improve creativity, while others sharpen focus. In one study, “reading a book for around 3½ hours a week was shown to extend the lifespan . . . by something like two to three years.” Learning a foreign language “gives a workout to the very centers of the brain that are most affected by the aging process, so it’s super healthy.”

Others are surprising. “Action videogames are incredibly helpful in keeping you sharp,” Ms. Oakley says. “They’ve been shown by research—top-notch research—to make a big difference in your attentional centers.” Videogames even improve eyesight. “You can drive better; you’ll catch if some little animal is darting in from the side,” she says. “Fine print on a medicine bottle—you can see it better if you’re working with these action videogames.”

I read her book in manuscript when I blurbed it — it’s very interesting.