Skip to content

Thinking in focused and diffuse mode

    Neuroscientists have found that the brain works in two different ways, focused mode and diffuse mode, and both modes are important. Focused and diffuse thinking describe two contrasting ways of approaching problems and learning, where focused thinking is concentrated, conscious and relatively predictable, whereas diffuse thinking is relaxed, largely unconscious and can lead to surprising connections.

    Using the focused mode means being alert and engaging very specific parts of the brain. Focused thinking is dependent on established neural pathways and existing patterns of thinking, and is the type of thinking one resorts to in order to understand and solve familiar problems, or to explore a new concept. Which parts of the brain are working depends on what you are doing, i.e. when you are solving multiplication problems, for example, different parts of the brain are engaged in concentration than when you are talking. When you are trying to learn something new, you first have to focus intensely on it in order to switch on these parts of the brain and start the learning process. The strength of focused thinking lies in its ability to analyse and solve problems in a sequential manner, where, for example, it is very likely that the reader of this text is applying a level of focused thinking as he or she reads these words and tries to understand this model.

    In diffuse mode, on the other hand, the mind is relaxed and free, thinking of nothing in particular or special. One is in diffuse mode when one is just daydreaming or doodling ,or when the teacher tells one to concentrate after all, one has probably slipped into diffuse mode. When you are in diffuse mode, you use other parts of your brain that are different from the parts you use when you are concentrating. For example, the diffuse mode helps to make imaginative connections between ideas, and creativity often seems to emerge from the diffuse mode. Diffuse thinking is what happens when the mind relaxes and makes room for daydreaming and digressive thoughts, which is something that many people overlook or undervalue because it is a fact that even when the conscious mind stops focusing on something, the brain continues to process, think and reason. Diffuse thinking allows the subconscious mind to make unexpected connections between different ideas, for example, to develop and learn innovative solutions by connecting new and unfamiliar concepts with existing ones. You often experience diffuse thinking when you go for a walk, take a shower, go for a long drive in the countryside or just look out of the window.

    It has been shown that the brain needs to switch back and forth between the focused and diffuse modes in order to think and learn effectively. If you have perhaps been trying to understand a topic for some time without success, you should not necessarily work on it even longer and more intensively, but simply take a break. Often, after such a break, the topic seems much easier and you wonder why you had such difficulties in the first place. With very complex topics, you can also take a break for the rest of the day and continue working on it the next day.