When we’re learning and thinking, there are 2 modes available to us; focused and diffused.
We’re more familiar with focused thinking, it’s what is drilled into us at school and what seems to be valued in the workforce. Focused thinking is when the brain actively zeros in on trying to come up with a solution to a problem or an idea. It’s resource intensive, tiring and eventually stressful.
Focused thinking tends to fall into the same mental paths and patterns that you always use, so using focused thinking to learn about new concepts or find solutions to problems you’ve never encountered before is not very effective.
This is where diffused thinking comes into play.
Diffused thinking is where your brain is in a more relaxed state, often your pre frontal cortex is occupied, such as when we’re running or exercising. The rest of your brain is then free to think openly, unrestricted by your existing thought patterns. This is why so many great ideas tend to occur while you’re in the shower or cleaning the house, you’re not focusing on trying to solve a problem, but your brain is working away in the background to pull all of your knowledge and experiences together for you.
We dream using diffused mode thinking and waking during dreams or day dreams can help you pull the ideas from diffused thinking into focused thinking.
Focused thinking is important and you need deliberate thought and practice to solve most problems, however there come a point where you need to let your brain relax and approach the solution from a different angle.
Unfortunately, you can’t use both simultaneously, but you want to be able to switch between the two. Stopping work for 10 minutes while you read a funny story or play a game online can give your brain enough respite to switch into diffused mode and start churning away.
To learn more about focused and diffuse thinking, check out Barbara Oakley incredible book – Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and course on Learning How to Learn.