Focused vs. Diffuse Thinking

“We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead; it can only serve” -Albert Einstein

Neuroscientists have been making profound advances in understanding our brain switches between two different types of neural networks: the highly attentive state, also called the focused mode of attention and the resting state, called the diffuse mode, a sort of emotional and cognitive wandering.

“The focused mode is associated with the concentrating abilities of the prefrontal cortex and involves a direct approach to problem solving using rational, sequential and analytical approaches” Dr. Barbara Oakley – A mind for numbers.

On the other hand, the diffuse mode is what happens when you relax your attention and let you mind wander. Unlike the focused mode it is not associated with any particular area of the brain and offers a “big picture” perspective. Most people are naturally switching between the two modes of thinking, which turns out to be the secret, intuitive finding of many creative and innovative minds like Thomas Edison and Dali.

And, even though the two modes of thinking do not coexist (hence the analogy with the sides of a coin), they are both involved in the learning process, the diffuse mode offering unexpected insights into what has been preliminarily thought about in the focused mode.

Another way to think of the difference between focused and diffuse modes, writes Dr. Oakley, is to think of a flash light setting. The focused mode can penetrate deeply into a small area while the diffuse mode casts its light broadly but not so strong in any one area.

Even though learning involves a complex flickering of neural processing among different areas of the brain and back and forth between hemispheres, when “we try to understand something new, your best bet is to turn off the precision-focused thinking and turn on your “big picture” diffuse mode long enough to latch on to a new approach” suggests Dr. Oakley. She also adds that “the diffuse mode of thinking has a mind of its own and it cannot be turned on with a simple command”.

However, as the transition between the two modes of thinking is the key for creativity, innovation and insight, there are a handful of tools and strategies to assist all along. Follow up the unusual ways of shifting between the two modes of thinking in my blog on “Learning is creating”.


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