Focused Mode Versus Diffused Mode of Thinking: Why You Need Both

Focused mode versus diffused mode of thinking is an important concept in Barbara Oakley’s book, A Mind for Numbers.  Dr. Oakley posited that the interplay between these two modes of thinking is one of the most important concepts to learning anything.  In this blog post, I will be talking about the two modes of thinking and then go on to explain the importance of using both modes of thinking in order to learn and understand new concepts.

Focused Mode of Thinking

Think of focused mode as conscious learning.

Learning in focused mode is usually what people think of when hearing the word “learning.”  It is using our focused attention to think solely about the information we are trying to learn.  During focused mode thinking, we are sitting down and deliberately practicing something or trying to solve a problem, without distracting ourselves with anything else.  When you are sitting down and writing a paper, doing a math problem, or practicing a specific dance move, you are in focused mode.

The focused mode can be thought of as the foundation of knowledge, laying the initial memory traces for us to form our knowledge base.  The focused practice and repetition of triple axles, free throws, roundhouse kicks, math problems, or vocabulary is what allows us to build a foundation of knowledge to ultimately apply it to what we are ultimately learning to do—whether it be figure skating, playing basketball, doing karate, acing a math examination, or learning to speak a foreign language.

Focused mode learning is centered in and around the prefrontal cortex, the area right behind the forehead.  The prefrontal cortex is responsible for much of our executive functions that has to do with decision-making and problem-solving, in addition to controlling our attention and memory.

Diffused Mode of Thinking

Think of diffused mode as unconscious learning. 

Unlike focused mode, diffused mode doesn’t seem to have one central area in the brain that is mainly responsible—it seems to be a division of labor of multiple areas of the brain.

When you are trying to grasp a new concept, you do not have a preexisting neural patterns to help guide your thoughts—there is no fuzzy underlying pathway to help guide you.  This is when diffused mode becomes handy.  To further explain the difference between focused and diffused, it is useful to use the flashlight analogy used in the book.  When you are in focused mode, you are shining a flashlight that is tightly focused on one small area.  However, when using diffused mode you are casting the flashlight in a broad area, with the light not shining brightly in any one specific area.

When you are in diffused mode, you are not intently focused on so-called deliberate practice.  Rather, you are just letting the limited knowledge run in the background, kind of like background programs running on your smart phone while you actively use one program.  Thinking in diffused mode can be done by just playing a game of basketball if you are learning how to be a better basketball player, by playing random chords on the guitar if you are learning how to play the guitar, or just mentally thinking about math problems while taking a walk.

Diffused attention has also been shown to be especially important to creativity and creative problem solving.  In a study conducted by Northwestern researchers, participants with diffused attention scored much higher on the Creativity Achievement Questionnaire than participants in focused attention mode, with IQ being the controlling variable.  This insight is illustrated by the chart below:

Why We Need Both

The truth is that to truly learn something and store knowledge permanently in our brains, we need our brains to do both.  We need to first learn the material by using our focused mode of thinking by focusing intently on the material without distraction.  Thereafter, we use our diffused mode to get a big picture idea of the what we are learning and to let the ideas percolate in the background while we focus on others things.  During diffused mode of thinking, our brain is passively internalizing the information and searching for potential connections and neural pathways within the stored information in the brain.  This is great for the the brain because the search for potential connections is what enables us to get that big picture perspective.

But eventually, we will have to go back and focus our attention intently on connecting the different neural pathways to get a succinct idea of what we are trying to learn.  The diffused mode shows us a bunch of potential connections, while the focused mode will allow us to make the right connections out of the potential connections we already have.

Although focused mode is a required and important element of first learning the material, being in focused mode too long can detract from learning.  When staying in focused mode too long—such as when they are stuck on a math problem—this becomes more problematic than helpful.  By intensely focusing on the problem for too long, we experience tunnel vision, and lose our ability to think outside-the-box in order to solve a problem.  This problem is also known as the Einstellung effect.

With the Einstellung effect, an idea we have in our mind prevents a better idea or solution from being found.  This is especially applicable in solving problems in math and science.  By focusing on a problem too long, we begin to work within an arbitrary set of parameters and assumptions/premises.  However, it could be that the set of parameters we arbitrarily set is not the correct or be the best way to solve a problem.  Thus staying in focused mode too long can be detrimental to learning.  So the next time you are stuck on a problem, take a little break, let your mind go into diffused mode, and start again with a clean slate in focused mode.

Additionally, when stressed, we begin to lose the ability to connect pertinent ideas that is so innate to focused mode.  A little bit of stress allows us to perform at our peak, but too much stress inhibits our ability to think clearly.  This is why the brain doesn’t work quite right when we are angry or afraid.  Thus, the idea of taking a break when frustrated is grounded in factual evidence.

Example of Focused and Diffused Modes Together

Learning a language is a perfect example of using both focused and diffused mode.  While we are in class learning the vocabulary and sentence structure, we are engaging in focused mode of thinking.  However, we all know that just learning the information in a classroom environment using rote repetition is not how you are going to be proficient in a foreign language.  In addition to classroom learning, we must learn in diffused mode by speaking and conversing with people who are proficient in the foreign language, preferably native speakers.  It is only then that we can expand on our classroom knowledge and really learn how to put it to use.

This is one such example but there are many examples of learning using both focused and diffused mode.  Only when we go back and forth between both modes are we really learning.  Diffused mode without focused mode is limited as we do not have a firm foundation in which to build knowledge.  Focused mode without diffused mode severely limits our ability to progress as it doesn’t allow us to think creatively, nor does it allow us to find and connect concepts and neural pathways.

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