Project Connect: Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath

On Tuesday, 15 October 2019, former US/NZ Youth Councillor Lit Wei Chin attended a Project Connect presentation at AUT University.  The guest speaker was renowned cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath.  The author of several books and an expert on human thought and learning, Dr. Horvath spoke for an hour and fielded questions from a large audience.  What follows is Lit Wei’s account of the evening.

Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath

Unlike many keynote speakers, we were able to immerse ourselves in an engaging and interactive session with Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath. He challenged the way we think about essential 21st century skills. A combination of both neurological explanations and real-life examples allowed us to dig deeper.

Dr. Horvath started the session with a card game, a riddle that left the audience debating and speculating about the answer. This got the room laughing and the curiosity flowing through our brains with such a simple question but left to be understood at a later time.

As Horvath frequently repeated, “Facts always precede skills,” we realized how the transfer of a skill from one context to another illustrates how human beings don’t think like a calculator. With these interesting ways he presented ideas, and laid out the three steps in successfully transferring skills from one situation to another. Step one; understand the knowledge, step two; redefine your skills to suit the context, and step three; be adaptable.

CG Katelyn Choe and Dr. Horvath

Horvath explained that our brains are constantly changing. He demonstrated this with optical illusions.  From guessing the colors on a Rubik’s cube with shadows or without, to staring at a 3-dimenesional cube with a green panel that continuously moved, the way we thought about these illusions changed the way we perceived them. Above all, we realized how little we understood about the three foundations of learning. Firstly, modularity; the brain is actually composed of dozens of brains. Secondly, synapses are a way of providing plasticity, always allowing the brain to change. Lastly, the brain can function ‘bottom-up’ in autopilot predictor mode or ‘top-down’ being in an active coder mode. This is the difference between doing something by rote learning or actively thinking about each step of the process consciously. This got us understanding that the “transfer process is the learning process, the only freely transferable skill.”

Jared asked the audience, “What is the one essential ingredient to learning?”  Anyone who wants to learn at any level, at any time, or in any place needs this ingredient. In a room of over 150 people with diverse backgrounds including academics, engineers, bankers, young-professionals, and students, not a single person guessed correctly.

Motivation? Experience? No, simply, “repetition.” Repetition is the essential ingredient. Learning is a process we get to walk through by repeating and getting better. We have this massive disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to learning. It takes time to understand the context and do the process, instead of jumping to the deep end.

Finally, this brings us back to the question “Do humans have any transferrable skills?” At the start, when Dr. Horvath said, “Humans have no transferrable skills,” he admitted he lied. The truth is humans have one transferrable skill: the ability to learn. That skill that is the key to everything else.

One of the most rewarding takeaways is the realization that something we have been doing our whole lives, learning, is something we actually know so little about. This keynote speaker is one of the highlights of this year’s Project Connect series. He opened my eyes to understanding that learning is a key transferable skill in every aspect of our lives, just through the power of repetition.

Lit Wei Chin

Repetition, repetition, repetition.