The Two Modes of Thinking – Focused and Diffuse

Have you had a mental block, in which you couldn’t think of a solution to a problem when you’re thinking hard, but the answer seem to come on its own when you are doing something else instead?
Or do you find that random ideas come easily when you are daydreaming?
Those are when the diffuse mode of your brain being activated.

The two modes of thinking

The brain has two generic modes of thinking: Focused mode and Diffuse mode.
The focused mode is activated when you are intensely concentrating on solving problems. For example, when solving mathematics or science questions. Solving these kinds of questions require logical and rational thinking. The train of thoughts are closely connected to enable analytical and sequential problem solving approaches. Brain activity is highly concentrated in the prefrontal cortex, known for decision-making and executive function.
The diffuse mode, on the other hand (or brain), occurs below our conscious level. It is activated when we are relaxed. While it is not associated with any particular part of the brain, the whole brain is involved during the diffused mode. This mode is important for us to understand things in perspective, as compared to details in the focused mode. It is also during this mode in which most new ideas and thoughts are generated.

Either or, but interconnected

While the brain is unable to activate focused and diffuse modes simultaneously, the brain switches between the two modes naturally when we are learning.
However, it can be easy to be too involved in one mode. We can be too focused in solving a certain problem, and end up having a mental block as we cannot see the big picture of the problem. Or, we can be too relaxed or daydreaming away (procrastination zombies at work!) and not focusing on the work.

Focus away, but take short breaks

Having a good balance between the two modes is key to better learning.
If you find yourself having trouble working on a solution, or that you have spent a significant amount of time studying, give yourself a good break. Let yourself do something completely unrelated to your current work or study, so that the brain’s diffuse mode can happen and help you consolidate your learning in the background.
If, however, you find yourself daydreaming too much or have trouble concentrating, use the Pomodoro Technique to help you work on small tasks one at a time.

Take a walk and exercise

In the modern society with the many technology around us, it is easy to get distracted. Many times when we are distracted, we end up doing non-important tasks that also utilise the focus mode. Eventually the brain is cluttered with too many information and it becomes increasingly difficult to work on the important tasks at hand.
When you find yourself overwhelmed with too many information, take a walk, have a cup of coffee, stop doing work and relax fully. Let your brain rest and settle back, and allow the diffuse mode to do its job.
Take this chance to also do some exercises, even though it is only a few minutes. A healthy body gives a healthy brain.