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How to approach problems and learning: focused vs diffuse thinking

Researchers have found that we have two fundamentally different modes of thinking: “Focused” and “Diffuse” modes.

How Barbara Oakley and Terence Sejnowski said in their MOOC “Learning How To Learn”:

We're familiar with focusing. It's when you concentrate intently on something you're trying to learn or to understand. But we're not so familiar with diffuse thinking. Turns out that this more relaxed thinking style is related to a set of neural resting states.

Focused mode is a highly attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities to ignore all extraneous information. We use focused thinking when we are really concentrating on the matter at hand.  It’s also the preferred method for studying knowledge-intensive subjects.

When we are in our focused mode of thinking, it’s like we have a one-track mind for the matter at hand. Distractions don’t exist. Focused mode allows us to zoom directly in on the most pertinent information.

Diffuse mode looks at the big picture. Unlike focused mode, diffuse mode happens when you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random. The diffuse mode let your brain free to connect the dots and link neural processes.

Usually, diffuse thinking happens as you do other things. While your conscious mind is relaxed, your brain is able to form a creative solution to a problem or finally link ideas that had been eluding you.

Based on the actual knowledge of neuroscientists you cannot be in both thinking modes at the same time.

It's kind of like a coin. We can see either one side, or the other side of the coin. But not both sides at the same time. Being in one mode seems to limit your access to the other mode's way of thinking.

When you’re learning something new, especially something that’s a little more difficult, your mind needs to be able to go back and forth between the two different learning modes.

Both are required in order to master a topic or make progress on a difficult project. After all, when you are learning something new, you need to understand both the context for the information (diffuse) and the specifics of the subject (focused).

Alternating between focused and diffuse thinking is the best way to master a subject or solve a difficult problem. First, we use the focused mode of thinking to understand the basics of a topic without any distractions. Then we use the diffuse mode to passively internalize what we have learned and make connections to other things we already knew. Afterwards, we go back into focused mode and pare down the connections that we made to the best, most helpful ones.

Once you have repeated this process a few times, the information will really stick.

In fact, too much focus removes our ability to reset the parameters or premise of the problem and blocks creativity. 

That’s why when you’re feeling stuck or frustrated with a topic, it’s best to step back and take a break to let the diffuse mode run for a while. Too much diffuse thinking, on the other hand, will prevent you from ever getting the details of anything straight.

When you’re learning, what you want to do is study something. Study it hard by focusing intently. Then take a break or at least change your focus to something different for a while. During this time of seeming relaxation, your brain’s diffuse mode has a chance to work away in the background and help you out with your conceptual understanding.