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How To Utilize Both Brain’s Thinking Modes: Focused vs Diffuse

Salvador Dali, the 20th century famous/notorious surrealist painter, had a seemingly strange habit. He would sit in a comfortable chair with a key in his hand and would let his brain wander freely until he fell asleep and dropped the key. The clang of the key on the floor would wake him up, and he’d immediately start jotting down any thoughts he had at the moment on a notebook he kept nearby. It is said that it is through this process that some of his best ideas came to be.

While this seems a part of Dali’s well-known eccentricity, he wasn’t the only one to utilize thishs technique. The famous inventor and businessman Thomas Edison utilized a very similar technique to get more creative ideas, and would then move on to work on them consciously. Both these (very different) men had found out a way to utilize the 2 different methods of thinking: the focused and the diffuse mode.

Focused Mode

The focused mode of thinking is pretty much what its name says. When you are concentrating on something, be it shooting a ball or solving a math problem, your brain operates in the focused mode. It is a highly focused state of the brain that utilizes the prefrontal cortex, also known as the part of the brain that is responsible for attention, short-term memory, decision making and execution of tasks.

The focused mode is the active mode when you try to learn or practice something. It is the mode that allows your brain to get into more depth in the subject at hand, learn new material and execute specific tasks. The focused mode of thinking is connected with the concept of deliberate practice.

Diffuse Mode

The diffuse mode is a more relaxed state of thinking and is not connected with any particular part of the brain. This mode is all about making subconscious and unconscious connections in your brain, allowing the understanding of new and abstract concepts, as well as the approach of a problem from different angles.

Due to this free “movement” in the brain, the diffuse mode focuses on the breadth of thoughts and neural connections, rather than the depth. It is in this mode that your brain connects understanding from different disciplines and allows for the creation of diverse and robust mental models.

The diffuse mode is activated in all those moments when you are not explicitly concentrated on something. These include taking a walk, driving, listening to music and, of course, sleeping. Haven’t you ever been stuck on a problem, only to wake up the next morning with the solution in your mind?

Which of the 2 modes is best for learning?

The answer is simple: you need both. These 2 fundamentally different modes of thinking are complementary in our effort to learn and understand new knowledge. Also, it is important to know that you can’t do both at the same time. Rather, you need to consciously alternate.

Many people (unfortunately many teachers too) will tell you to be constantly focused and concentrated in order to solve a problem or absorb new knowledge. But, despite what conventional wisdom tells you, bashing at the problem is not going to help. On the contrary, if you keep going at a problem in the focused mode unsuccessfully for too long, you develop tunnel vision.

That can be explained as the process of trying to solve a problem or approach material from a specific angle, even though better methods or approaches exist. This is called the Einstellung Effect, which is the negative effect of previous experiences when solving new problems.

In order to avoid the Einstellung Effect, you need to give yourself time to better comprehend a problem and connect new information. You also need to detach from the problem or learning at hand, not think about it at all, allowing your brain to come back to it from different perspectives. This happens through the diffuse mode of thinking. On the other hand, acquiring new knowledge and applying it is the job of the focused mode.

How to utilize both thinking modes

As we established, it is very important to alternate through the focused and the diffuse modes. Below are some specific steps you can utilize to actually achieve this.

  • Use a pomodoro timer. The Pomodoro Technique suggests setting a 25-minute timer to work focused and without distractions, and then getting a 5-10 minute relaxing break. Allow yourself to diffuse in your breaks while being in the focused mode during the pomodoros.
  • Push yourself to the edge of your current comprehension, and then diffuse. Regardless of what you are practicing on, there is a point where you reach the end of your current knowledge base and comprehension, and get stuck. When learning or practicing something, e.g. a math problem, work in the focused mode till you get stuck, and then consciously shift into diffuse mode. You can do that by going for a walk, for instance. Then, after a while, come back to the problem with your newly built connections.
  • Sleep on it. Probably the best way to utilize the diffuse mode is to work a bit on the material or problem right before you go to bed. This way your subconscious will process the new information overnight, and you will wake up with newfound comprehension on the subject.


The brain has 2 different modes of thinking, the focused and the diffuse mode. The first is when you are concentrated on the subject/material at hand, while the second is when you allow your brain to relax, make new connections and form new neural patterns.

In order to learn most effectively, you need to learn how to utilize both modes in an alternate manner. It is best to have a diffuse mode “session” follow a focused mode one in order to have your brain form the new connections around the subject you want it to.

Call to Action

Learning to alternate between the 2 thinking modes, you will find yourself comprehending more complex stuff much faster. I’d love to hear about your struggles through the process and/or achievements. Post on the Facebook group, or contact me directly!

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