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Diffuse vs. Focused Mode of Thinking

by Barbara Oakley, PhD

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    00:05 So Barb, it was really helpful in the last video to hear about these overarching strategies to spacing sleep at night and exercise, but so often when you're studying you can come up against something that you really get stuck on, you can't get through and you can't solve it. So, do you have any practical solutions, you know what's happening in the brain when that happens and how do you solve that? Well, it's a great question Peter and the issue is before I give some practical solutions about how to solve that, let's step back and look at how the brain actually functions. It turns out there are 2 fundamentally different modes that the brain uses to learn with. The first mode I'll call focused mode and it's hopefully what you're doing right now focusing on the screen or focusing on me. The second mode I'll call diffuse mode and it's you're still thinking in this mode but your thoughts are much more random. Now, psychologist call focused mode the task positive set of networks while the diffuse mode is task negative networks and neuroscientists call that diffuse mode the default mode network. But for us to better understand these 2 very different networks, we're going to use a metaphor and the metaphor we're going to use is that of a pinball machine. Now, if you're my age which you probably are not, you remember how a pinball machine works, but if you're not my age it's a very simple device. All you have to do is pull back on the plunger of the pinball machine and a ball will come bouncing around on those rubber bumpers and you keep it alive using those flippers but that's how you score points. So, what we're going to do is we're going to take that pinball machine and we're going to put it right on the human brain. Ready for it? There we go. We've got a pinball machine on the brain. Now this is our metaphor for the focused mode of thinking and you can see it's focused because those little rubber bumpers are very closely spaced with one another. Now what happens in this focused mode of thinking is you know some sort of skill or an idea or a concept and that has laid patterns in your brain by virtue of the fact that you've already learned about this topic. So if I ask you perhaps to multiply 74 x 25, you pull out a piece of paper or maybe even do it in your head but your thoughts would move right along those pathways that have already been laid because you've already learned how to multiply. But let's say that you are learning something completely new like in our case we'll say "You know multiplication, but you've never learned division before." So, how do you learn something new? I mean, you're going to lay pattern somewhere but you don't know where those patterns are going to be laid, you don't know how to access them. I mean how do you learn something new? It turns out that what you often do is you'll start to study something new and let's say you're solving a new division problem. So, it's a little bit of a difficult, your first difficult division problem.

    04:10 So what your mind will do is it will begin working on that division problem, but it can't help it, it slithers right back up into the multiplication patterns because they're much more familiar. So, what you do is you can't solve the problem and you can't solve it and you can't solve it and you find yourself getting more and more frustrated and finally you might close the book or turn off the video and you walk away, maybe have dinner or go take a shower or go to sleep for the night. And what happens then is it opens this very different pattern of learning and that is the diffuse mode. The diffuse mode is quite different. So, what it's really doing is it's allowing your thoughts to move much more broadly. You can't think in that careful focused way that you can when you're in the focus mode, but you can at least get to the new perspective you want to be in, in order to solve that problem or understand that new concept. Now, as you're learning, you are often going back and forth between focused and diffuse modes. And you can't really be in both modes at the same time unless you're taking certain forms of mushrooms and I am not advocating that here. So the thing is, what practical insight can we gain from this knowledge of the 2 different modes of learning of the brain? That is the best insight I can give you out of this is there is a fantastic technique to help you use both focused and diffuse modes. That is...tada...the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is so simple, it was invented by an Italian, Francesco Cirillo, in the 1980s. All you need to do to do a Pomodoro is to first turn off all distractions. So no little ringing on your cellphone, no text messages, nothing popping up in your computer, then you set a timer for 25 minutes and then you focus as intently as you can for those 25 minutes. Now, if you're like me, what I'll do is on time I start focusing, I'm walking away, sweats pouring off my brow you'd be so proud of me at how hard I'm concentrating and I can't help it. I'll look up at the timer to see how much I've done of the Pomodoro and I've just done 2 minutes. My mind screams "I cannot do 23 more minutes" but I just let that thought slip right on by just kind of a zen sort of thing and I return my focus to what I'm working on because the reality is anybody can do 25 minutes. But then, comes the most important part of the Pomodoro Technique. That is to reward yourself. Relax for 5 minutes. What this is really doing is it's making clever use of focused and diffuse modes. So, focusing for 25 minutes then resting your brain for 5 minutes is an optimal way of helping you to learn effectively without intrusive thoughts that bring you out of that focusing mode. So, there are many different apps that can help people use the Pomodoro Technique so if you just look online you'll find Forest, for example, is a great Pomodoro app. There are many others.

    08:23 In Forest, if you plant a tree, you get a Pomodoro badge. If you don't finish your Pomodoro, you actually kill a tree, at least metaphorically speaking. So, collecting badges, gamifying things is a really great way to help you concentrate on your studies. Now, the one thing to remember is probably the most important challenge that learners around the world have is that they can tend to procrastinate.

    09:03 And procrastination is easy to do because when you even just think about something that you don't like or don't want to do, it activates a portion of the brain that experiences pain. So the brain naturally enough does something like this, you think about something you don't like, it immediately doesn't feel good, so your brain turns its attention to something else and the result you feel happier almost instantly. You did this once, do it twice, no big deal. You do it very often and it can have very serious long-term effects on your ability to be successful in your studies. So, a good thing to do is always keep in mind just do a Pomodoro. And what you want to really be doing is focusing on putting in the time of the Pomodoro, collect badges, collect numbers of Pomodoros that you done rather than thinking about "Oh no it's time for me to do whatever that study is." So if you think about the process that is putting in the time over the product that is thinking about a thing you don't want to do, it will avoid you activating that feeling of pain and you'll be more successful in your learning. Barb, what great advice and it's so practical but who would have thought that a tomato was the key to success in your studies, it's so interesting to see how this practical advice has this basis in neurobiology letting the brain rest and change your thought processes. And I know we're going to be talking more about those kinds of processes in the segments to come. And well, but one thing I should add is that when you're taking that rest, that 5-minute rest, if you really want that information to percolate through your brain, try not to focus on anything else. Don't go sneaking off and focus on your text messages, for example, because you'll be thinking "I'm just peeking at my text messages" and then before you know it you got a text message and then you're responding to it and that's taking you back into the focused mode going completely into that mental relaxation of the diffuse mode by not doing anything intensive. So like listening to a little music that you like or maybe having a cup of tea or something like that is what's really most helpful during that all important reward period or relaxing period of the brain. So Peter, let's go have a tomato sandwich. Sounds great Barb. Thank you.


    About the Lecture

    The lecture Diffuse vs. Focused Mode of Thinking by Barbara Oakley, PhD is from the course Neuroscience of Learning.


    Included Quiz Questions

    1. Focused and diffuse
    2. Focused and distributed
    3. Concentrated and diffuse
    4. Concentrated and distributed
    1. It allows the brain to process information from different perspectives and more easily form new connections.
    2. It allows the brain to implement previously learned information for a particular action.
    3. It describes the moment when the brain is actively acquiring a new piece of knowledge.
    4. It can be achieved by taking a break from your lessons and focusing on text messages and social media.
    1. It allows learners to use both focused and diffuse modes to process information more effectively.
    2. It reduces the time needed to learn new information by allowing learners to focus longer.
    3. It helps associate learning with positive emotions by pulling attention away from the pain centers of the brain.
    4. It is a way to gamify learning.
    1. During the rest period, the learner should avoid focusing on text messages or social media.
    2. The duration of focus time must be at minimum 30 minutes.
    3. The rest period must be shorter than 5 minutes.
    4. During the rest period, the learner should try focus their eyes on something farther away than their screen.

    Author of lecture Diffuse vs. Focused Mode of Thinking

     Barbara Oakley, PhD

    Barbara Oakley, PhD


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