Study Central: Focused vs. Diffused Learning


Melissa Schmitz, Opinion Editor


Ever find that you encounter tough problems that you just cannot for the life of you solve? That after so much time spent thinking so intently on the problem, you just get… nothing? As it turns out, thinking too hard is actually a thing, and a bad one. Learning some neuroscience basics can provide you with strategies to combat these problems, some of which I will discuss here.
According Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., there exists two fundamental modes of thinking: the focused mode and the diffused mode. You already know about the focused mode. It involves very intense concentration of a specific topic. The diffuse mode, in contrast, involves a more relaxed thinking style that allows for broad, “big picture” types of thought. To better explain this through analogy [a very useful learning technique, as well], imagine your brain as though it is a pinball machine. The bumpers represent neurons with the pinball bumping in between them to create thought pathways. You might think of the focused mode as having bumpers that are more close together. With the limited space in between the bumpers, there is a very narrow range that the pinball can move. The diffuse mode, however, doesn’t require that “tight” kind of local thinking. Imagine that the bumpers now have more space in between them. This allows the pinball to move more freely, more vastly across the machine, representing the relaxed, global thought process of the diffused mode, allowing you to connect ideas you may not have thought of connecting prior.
It should also be noted that, as far as neuroscientists are currently aware, these two modes of thinking are separate. That is, you cannot engage in them simultaneously.
Honing such a skill as the diffused mode of thinking can take some practice. Two very influential men, Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison, both utilized this skill to accomplish great feats in their respective fields. The technique they both used goes as such. They would relax into a comfortable chair holding an object, such as keys or ball-bearings, and begin to loosely think about the subject they were trying to elucidate. While letting their minds run free they would start to drift into a peaceful snooze. At this moment the hand holding the object would loosen, allowing the object to drop to the floor. This would of course cause a stir and awaken them, in which they would begin the focused mode of thinking, drawing from the insights they accrued during the diffused mode.
Though it may be intuitively obvious, you can’t just dream your way to an A. It is absolutely necessary to have focused attention on the subject at hand first. Our brains have evolved quite well in allowing us to navigate complex intellectual terrain, after all. Once the stage is set, most of the neurological “heavy lifting” is below the level of consciousness, believe it or not.
You may be thinking, “Okay, that’s great. Now how can I further reap those benefits?” Simply put, you need to sleep.
While you’re awake toxins build up within your brain. The only way to remove these toxins is to sleep. While sleeping your neurons shrink, allowing for space between them to open up. This in turn facilitates the flow of extracellular fluid, which flushes these toxins away. If you allow these toxins to build up over time, you lose your ability to think clearly, which is why cramming is never the solution [of course, in the long term these problems become far worse than just fuzzy thinking]. Also during sleep you are allowing your brain areas to better “talk” with one another as the conscious prefrontal cortex region relinquishes its dominance. This further allows your brain to edit and enhance the memories from the day by deleting those that are unimportant and rehashing those more important memories to bring them into long term storage.
Now that you know about this technique, go use it! I would recommend, however, that you try to get your initial focused mode sessions in significantly before any tests or quizzes so that you may enable yourself to fully reap the benefits of the diffuse mode.
Happy studying!