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Learning how to Learn: Focused and Diffuse Thinking

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by | Nov 19, 2018

When the topic of focused and diffuse thinking was first introduced to me I was a little mind blown, I understood that our brains can focus in different ways but I had never labelled these. Just another cool fact for understanding how we learn and grow our minds! Focused and Diffuse thinking are just two different thinking modes that our brains can use for learning new information.


Focused Thinking

Focused thinking is just as it says on the tin: focused. It is when we focus intently on one subject, requires a high level of concentration and you must be highly attentive throughout. This type of thinking occurs in the prefrontal cortex of our brain: the section of brain just behind our forehead. It allows us to zoom in on specific details of a subject and to ignore other concepts that do not require our focus, similar to having blinkers on. Focused thinking cannot occur when we are [attempting] to multitask. This is because there is very limited space in our brain for focused thinking. Picture a filing cabinet, we only have four shelves of the filing cabinet available to us at any one time for focused thinking. Attempting to multitask, maybe by checking a notification on our phone or replying to something on instagram, that takes up one of our shelves: now we only have three shelves available to use for the task at hand. See how that could be an issue? Focused thinking is used to deepen knowledge of a particular subject. [apologies for my drawing, it is not anatomically correct but just gives an idea of where in the brain this thinking occurs!]



Diffuse Thinking

On the other hand, diffuse thinking occurs when we are not focused and allow our minds to wander freely. Maybe when you’re pondering a new idea in the shower or on a beautiful Autumn walk: freeing your mind and allowing it to wander and make connections with many different parts of the brain, rather than occurring in only one section. This type of thinking is helpful for seeing the bigger picture/giving context, making connections with different pieces of learning that you are already familiar with and linking it to the new information you are trying to learn. Diffuse thinking does not allow you to learn a concept as in depth as focused thinking, but it does allow you to begin making the connections to allow focused thinking to become more efficient. If focused thinking is a filing cabinet, diffuse thinking is the container where all of the filing cabinets are stored and all of that information is readily available to you. [the picture beside is intended to illustrate that diffuse thinking occurs all over the brain, not in one specific area, and is in no way anatomically correct nor intended to be].


These two ways of thinking cannot occur at the same time, however it is important that you flick between the two as they will strengthen your learning and allow you to problem solve effectively vs. using only one method. For example: if you tried to solve a problem using only focused thinking, pretty soon you would run out of ideas and would not be able to reach into your brain for subjects you have previously learned, to make connections and spark new approaches. This is why spaced repetition works so well as a learning technique. Spaced repetition involves short focused thinking sessions followed by diffuse thinking by sleeping, or walking, going about the rest of your evening etc. This spaced repetition should not happen in the space of a day, but over several days. For example, even just ten minutes of focused thinking every day will help you to deepen your knowledge of a subject while the break in between will allow time for diffuse thinking to make connections with subjects you have already learned and therefore, maybe, new ways of approaching the subject. Pretty cool, and simple to put into practice. Make it a habit and schedule small focused study sessions, use the pomodoro technique previously mentioned, each day and ensure that you allow time for diffuse thinking after! Practice makes perfect and you will strengthen your ability to use these two thinking modes simply by using them time and time again. [below is a graph intended to show the relationship between spaced repetition and information retention.]


An example of someone who used diffuse thinking to enhance his focused thinking? Edison! He would focus intently on his work and then fall asleep with ball bearings in his hands. During the process of falling asleep, he would enter diffuse thinking. When he was completely asleep, the ball bearings would drop and he would wake up. He would then use ideas from his diffuse thinking to build on his focused thinking of the subject at hand.

Content is cited from “Learning How to Learn”, Coursera and Brainscape

Photo 1 & 2 : My own “artwork”

Photo 3 : Graph of repeated repetition and information retention