focused vs diffuse thinking mode

Focused vs Diffuse Thinking Mode: Unlock Your Brain’s Potential

Your brain is complex, but if you understand just a little bit of how it works, you can learn more easily, perform better and be less frustrated. 

We give our full concentration to complicated subjects, and we push through to find solutions. But it is not the only way!

Researchers have found that there are two types of thinking. One of them we are already familiar with: focused mode. The other one is the diffuse mode.

focused vs diffuse thinking mode

Focused Vs Diffuse Thinking Mode

First of all, what’s a “thinking mode”?

Simply put, it’s the way your brain chooses to process information and solve problems.

If I ask you to add 12 to 10, you would reply in seconds by 22. But if I invite you to illustrate the beauty and the ugliness of the world in one painting, you would probably need much more time to figure out a way to do it.

That’s the difference between focused mode and diffuse mode.

When your brain follows fixed steps, already stored in the memory to provide you with results, you are on the focused mode of thinking.

It’s s a highly focused state of the brain that utilizes the prefrontal cortex.

On the other hand, the diffuse mode is activated in all those moments when you are not explicitly concentrated on something.

When your brain starts jumping from idea to idea, allowing the understanding of new and abstract concepts, connecting the dots in an unfocused state of mind.

The following table shows some of the main differences between focused and diffuse mode of thinking.

Focused ModeDiffuse Mode
Used for familiar processesUsed for new concepts
It's activated by concentrating on a taskIt's activated by relaxing and not focusing on anything in particular
It focuses on detailsIt grasps the "big picture"
It's a conscious processingIt works on problems in the background

In this video, Dr. Barbara Oakley explains the difference between the focused and diffuse mode using an interesting analogy.

Focused Vs Diffuse Thinking: Which One Is More Beneficial For Learning?

Focused Vs Diffuse Thinking mode

Which one is ultimately better? The answer is BOTH.

Let me tell you why.

Our brain is in need to use diffuse mode to connect the dots, and focused mode to get things done fast.

For example, when you try really hard to solve a math problem, you use the diffuse mode to understand the concept, and the focused mode to find the solution.

Therefore, both come in need throughout the process.

By the way, you cannot be on both thinking modes at the same time. In other words, when you’re using the focused mode, it prevents the diffuse mode from assisting with solving the problem! When you then switch gears, the diffuse works to solve the problem, but blocks the focused mode from assisting!

To sum up, the brain must be able to go back and forth between the two modes, in order to build a strong neural structure and learn effectively.

How to Activate Your Diffuse Thinking Power?

The diffuse mode is activated in all those moments when you are not explicitly concentrated on something. Below are some specific techniques you can use to initiate it.

... Sleep on It

Our brains naturally fall into the diffuse mode of thinking when we go to sleep.

So, if you are struggling with a problem, it can be helpful to look at it right before you go to bed for the night or for a nape. 

Have you ever been stuck on a problem and you wake up the next morning having a solution in mind?

That’s because all the information you’ve learned during the day is stored and structured during the night in a better and effective way.

sleeping with a book on the face diffuse mode

... Focus and Diffuse Cycle

Regardless of what we are trying to learn or work on, we all reach a point where we can no longer focus.

When you feel stuck and your comprehension is blocked, it’s time for some diffuse thinking!

cup of tea diffuse vs focused

The best thing to do is to consciously shift into more relaxing activities like walking or journaling or even meditating.

In other words, accessing the diffuse mode requires stepping away and doing something intellectually freeing.

Sometimes, taking a break for a few minutes might seem like a waste of time, but it’s an essential part of creating something valuable.

Learning About Learning, Dr. Barbara Oakley

Who is this lady who popularized these two concepts ?

Dr. Barbara Oakley  is an American professor of engineering at Oakland University and McMaster University. Her online course “Learn How To Learn” is one of the most popular MOOC classes in the world.

In this course and in her book “A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)” (link to Amazon), she talks about focused and diffuse mode, and their important role in the learning process.

Now, before saying this lady has to be really good with numbers from an early age, read what she is saying about it.

I started studying engineering much later than many engineering students because my original intention had been to become a linguist.

I enlisted in the U.S. Army right after high school and spent a year studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

The Army eventually sent me to the University of Washington, where I received my first degree–a B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literature.

Eventually, I served four years in Germany as a Signal Officer and rose to become a Captain.

After my commitment ended, I decided to leave the Army and study engineering so that I could better understand the communications equipment I had been working with.

But Dr. Barbara Oakley found herself falling in love with the brain science. She wrote several books about the complicated relationship between neuroscience and social behavior. Here are some of her books (links to Amazon):

Final Thoughts – Focused vs Diffuse Thinking

Both types of thinking can be used to train the brain on a topic; they simply do so differently.

  1. Focused mode is when you concentrate intently on something you are trying to learn or understand.
  2. Diffuse mode is a more relaxed thinking style, related to a set of neural resting states.
  3. To build a strong brain structure and comprehend more complex material faster, it is very important to learn how to alternate between the focused and the diffuse modes.
  4. “Sleep on it” or “Focus-Diffuse Cycle” are great ways to connect the dots and solve problems.
  5. To boost their productivity and harness their creativity, famous people like Thomas Edison, used specific methods to activate their diffuse mode of thinking.

Now that you know what your brain can do with these two modes of thinking, use the techniques listed above or find your own way to activate them, and unlock your imagination and creativity.

Write in the comment section below what’s your favorite way to activate your diffuse thinking mode! We would love to hear from you.