2 Modes of Thinking: Diffuse + Focused

According to the latest research in neuroscience, in regards to learning, there seems to be two modes of thinking: diffuse and focused.

The focused mode is when you’re focused on learning something and that’s basically the only doing you’re doing. You very consciously and intently think about the problem. You search for a solution with your full attention. You’re deliberately practicing a specific thing. You sit down, or walk around and think about nothing but that.

Your mind is shedding light onto the skill or activity like a laser.

The diffuse mode is when you’re vaguely or casually thinking about it. In the shower, almost falling asleep, walking, or doing some other relaxing or habitual activity. The problem is in the backburner. You’re thinking about it, but it’s not really the only thing you’re doing. Fiddling with the stuff for fun. Learning piano? Play some random stuff. Do drills. Learning swimming freestyle? Invent a swimming mode.

In this mode, it’s as if you were thinking about it / doing it but not really. The problem/practice feels present in your mind, just in the back of it. But it does feel present. For example, when you go out for a walk you find yourself scanning for connections between things you’re seeing and the problem.

The story of how an apple falling on Newton’s head led him to make a new connection that put forth the law of gravity is good example of diffuse thinking. Or if you’re thinking about starting a business and go for shop something you need and you notice things from the perspective of whether they would be good for your business.

This mode of thinking is interesting because it results in your brain creating unintentional but often more creative and ingenious connections between ideas.

Your mind is shedding light onto the skill or activity like a lantern.

Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison actively employed the diffuse thinking mode to boost their creativity and problem-solving productivity. They would hold an object in their hands, and as they would fall asleep, that object falling to the ground would wake them up. While doing that they would be thinking about the problem they wanted to solve.

Free-flow writing is another way of using the diffuse mode of thinking while also uploading what’s on your RAM to a physical means forcing you to create a coherent train of thought. Free-flow writing basically consists in you writing whatever is on your mind. I’d advise using paper and pen/paper as it seems to work the best for me, but you can try using a digital tool.

The benefits of the the diffuse mode of thinking we’ve already seen: increased creativity, decrease of the Einstellung effect, increased out-of-the-box thinking.

Jotting down the thoughts that your mind is juggling allows it to get new thoughts on the board. As we’ve seen, most of us can only hold 7 things in our minds at the same time, and that’s pushing it. By putting new thoughts on the RAM you can now connect those new thoughts with the ones you just put down, which before was kind of impossible because it was full.

Finally by writing your thoughts down, you force yourself to either make a coherent reasoning thought or to see at least some of its incoherences that were imperceptible while hovering around in your mind among all the other thoughts.

Now the reason I’ve focused more on the diffuse has nothing to do with their respective importance in learning, but more about the fact that the diffuse mode of thinking is not as known as its counterpart.

To summarize: I don’t need to tell you to use the focused mode of thinking, because when you’re learning something that’s the everyone uses. But take a break from that. And when you do, do something relaxing, but keep the problem or skill in the back of your mind, and think about it. Think around it. Think for fun, do not concern yourself with finding the solution straight away, just casually thinking about it things. About related things. Try it, and see how it goes.

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