In this article, you will learn about the two different types of thinking processes or modes the brain switches between – the focused and diffuse modes – and how the brain uses these modes to think and learn.
Pause and Think: “Take a break or keep studying?”
Introducing the Two “Modes of Thinking”
Our brains have two different thinking modes known as the focused and diffuse modes of thinking. Each of these modes helps us learn in different ways but the brain can think in only one of the modes at a time, but not both, more like two sides of a coin.
Meet the Focused Mode of Thinking
Whenever you turn your attention to something, you’ve turned on the focused mode. This mode of thinking involves concentration and problem-solving and is very useful for understanding science and math related subjects. For instance, the student in the image below is trying to understand the text he’s reading using the focused mode of thinking.
Meet the Diffuse Mode of Thinking
You must have had moments when you were probably having a bath or taking a walk, and all of a sudden, the solution to a problem you’ve been struggling with popped up in your brain. Say hello to the diffuse mode of thinking. This mode is associated with “big picture” perspectives. Whenever you relax your attention and just let your mind wander, you naturally slide into this mode of thinking. This article by Barbara Oakley explains the two modes of thinking more elaborately.
Effective learning takes advantage of both the focused and diffuse modes of learning. Whenever you’re studying or working on a problem, it is advisable to go as far as you can in the focused mode, and when you get stuck, switch to the diffuse mode so that you can give your brain some time to analyze the information in the background and change the way you are looking at the problem.
Interestingly, activities such as sleeping, going for a walk, running, swimming, having a shower, meditating, listening to music, talking to others and so on which often seem like a waste of time are some of the best ways to let the diffuse mode kick in.
One of the major mistakes we make when studying is studying too hard. So, in response to the question posed at the beginning of the article, it might actually be more productive if you decided to just close the book for a while, stand up and take a little break.
What do you think about the ideas that were shared in this article about the two modes of thinking? Do you think it helps to have intermittent breaks while studying or learning something? Leave your comment below.