Focused vs Diffuse mode of thinking

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Recent research indicates that the brain seems to possess two different modes of functioning, one involved when putting effort in active thinking, and the other – the “default” network – engaged when relaxing, resting or doing more physical activities (Greicius, Krasnow, Reiss, & Menon, 2003). There is growing evidence that this default mode has an essential role in psychosocial mental processes, imaginative functionalities, comprehension and creativity (Immordino-Yang, Christodoulou, & Singh, 2012). In other words it seems that the “regular” focused mode is very good at using existing knowledge to solve familiar problems, but it’s this diffuse mode of thinking that is instrumental in creating mental associations between previously unrelated concepts, thus enabling the solution of new problems, or the ideation of creative concepts.

The practical implications for us learners, is that while focused thinking about a concept or a problem is essential, it’s not the only component, and we have to leave space to the diffuse mode of thinking to be able to interiorize new concepts in a way that makes them useful in the context of our previous knowledge.

It’s common experience that of trying hard and with great concentration to solve a difficult problem but without success. We try to use the techniques we know, but the solution continues to escape us. But often, when we temporarily put the problem aside and maybe go for a walk or have a good night of sleep, the solution seems to magically reveal itself to us. This phenomenon can often be explained by the so-called “Einstellung” effect, where some ideas we have in mind prevent better ones to surface to our consciousness (Oakley, 2014) (Oakley & Sejnowski, n.d.). This now is easily explained by the different roles of the focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

The takeaway lession is to remember to alternate period of intense concentration (“focused mode”) with adequate periods of relaxation (“diffuse mode”). The diffuse mode seems to be activated most efficiently by:

  • jogging, walking or in general practicing some sport
  • doing some creative activities (drawaing, painting, playing music, listening to music, dancing, …)
  • taking a bath!
  • meditating/praying
  • sleeping

If you want to give a deeper look into this fascinating subject, read the enjoyable “A Mind For Numbers” (Oakley, 2014).

If you want to continue our journey into how to improve learning, read the next chapter on Memory and Chunking.


  1. Greicius, M. D., Krasnow, B., Reiss, A. L., & Menon, V. (2003). Functional connectivity in the resting brain: A network analysis of the default mode hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(1), 253–258.
  2. Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A., & Singh, V. (2012). Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(4), 352–364.
  3. Oakley, B. (2014). A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). Penguin Publishing Group.
  4. Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Coursera. Coursera. Retrieved from