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How Your Brain Switches Between Two Modes When You Think


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?”

Imagine you’ve been sitting at a desk while studying a textbook for over two hours now and your body is begging for a break. Your legs are becoming quite stiff from over-sitting and to make matters worse, you’ve been on the same line on the same page for the past thirty minutes. What should you do? Wouldn’t it be a mark of indiscipline if you decided to just close the book for a while, stand up and take a break? 

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.

Happy Learning!


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.

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  • Yeah, You are right there should always be a break for better assimilation.

  • Taking breaks,one of the most difficult problems faced or experienced by every student(whether a student or once a student),thanks for this write-up, it's really insightful and every true student will attest to the fact that a break is needed once in a while to help the absorption of everything one has read,for all work and no play makes Jake a dull boy.
    Too much of reading with no break dulls the brain, by this, the brain tends to work less effectively.
    So take breaks more often but please let's not allow our breaks get in the way of our active times.Thanks.

  • I now understand that it is not how hard you read but how well.it matters alot .

  • It was so beneficial and impactive to me. Thanks a lot.

    1. I'm glad to hear that. The basic idea: When you have spent some time on a tough problem without much headway, allow your brain the time to enter into the diffuse mode of thinking by relaxing a little or taking your mind of the problem for a while, and you will be amazed by the results. Happy learning!

  • Anthony

    it's really helpful thanks a lot!

  • Yea, i really like the lesson i now understand what happens to me when ever am studying, studying too hard is not advisable, always remember to take a break, it will really help.

  • Sandra

    Thanks a lot for the lesson.
    It really helped me understand the modes of thinking

  • Mohamed Jirde

    l am understand of two brain moves attention focused mode and diffuse mode , thank you

  • Disu Oluwaseun

    Thanks for sharing this ideas with me and many more. I have really leant alot from it. It has just helped me with better understanding on how to study my books.

  • if at all one wants to read should not read too hard

    1. Ruth, you're quite right. It's not about how much you read but how well you read. Even just 30 minutes of focused attention on what you're trying to learn can be much more beneficial than 5 hours of study full of all kinds of distractions.

  • From what I have just learnt it is important to take a break in such period

  • Yeap....a break should come in at such a period..

  • Yh. Thats d best, take a break.
    Thanks for this.

  • Its very good to have a break after spending so much time while trying to proffer solutions to a problem, the answer one is looking for might just come up, this has happened to me countless number of times. Its really working

  • Yes i think it will be more encouraging to switch on the diffuse mood that is to take a walk,bath listen to music when ever we are (student) is stuck or stress out in the focus mood as it makes a better head way of remembering or recovering almost forgotten ideas or thought.

    1. That's very true, Kingsley. Taking breaks helps you digest the information you've taken in after some time of focusing and paying attention to what you're learning.

  • I think it's okay to take breaks between studying. It helps in understanding and also cramming.