Ever get really stuck on something while studying?
It happens to the best of us from time to time. When we hit that point, it can be difficult to know what to do next, and we'd rather go chasing the next squirrel that distracts us.
There tend to be two camps among learning experts about how to handle this: those who advise giving your full concentration to a subject and pushing through, and those that suggest embracing the distraction.
Optimal thinking patterns for optimal learning
As it turns out, this lines up well with the two modes our brains use to process information: focused and diffuse thinking.
Focused thinking is pretty straightforward—it’s focused. We use focused thinking when we are really concentrating on the matter at hand. Focused thinking is a highly attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities in the prefrontal cortex to ignore all extraneous information. It's also the preferred method for studying knowledge-intensive subjects.
When we are in our focused mode of thinking, it’s like we have a one-track mind for the matter at hand. Distractions don’t exist. Whether we are practicing a specific skill like free-throws or slogging through a specific math problem, focused thinking allows us to zoom directly in on the most pertinent information.
[If you're looking to improve your focus while studying, we have a great guide on how to improve your concentration while studying]
Diffuse thinking, on the other hand, looks at the big picture. Unlike focused thinking, diffuse thinking is all about distractions. Diffuse thinking happens when you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random. The diffuse mode of thinking does not happen any one area of the brain, but rather all over. In fact, that is the beauty of diffuse thinking: your brain has the opportunity to connect the dots and link neural processes.
Usually, diffuse thinking happens as you do other things. That’s why taking a shower or going for a run to take a break from studying can actually lead to an important breakthrough. While your conscious mind is relaxed, your brain is able to form a creative solution to a problem or finally link ideas that had been eluding you.
Both types of thinking can be used to train the brain on a topic; they simply do so differently. To illustrate this point, consider a flashlight. You can have a concentrated beam of light that only illuminates a small area very brightly or you can have a less concentrated beam that illuminates a much broader area with a dimmer light.
With focused thinking, your brain processes very specific information deeply; with diffuse thinking, the brain analyzes much more information at once but in less depth. Just like both flashlights will take you out of the dark, both modes of thinking will help you understand a subject better. Which one will work better for you simply depends on whether you want to see the big picture or small details.
Which is more important: focused vs. diffuse thinking?
So which one is ultimately better for learning: focused vs. diffuse thinking? As it turns out, neither.
While these two modes may seem to work in opposition to each other, both are required in order to master a topic or make progress on a difficult project. After all, when you are learning something new, you need to understand both the context for the information (diffuse) and the specifics of the subject (focused).
Alternating between focused and diffuse thinking is the best way to master a subject or solve a difficult problem. First, we use the focused mode of thinking to understand the basics of a topic without any distractions. Then we use the diffuse mode to passively internalize what we have learned and make connections to other things we already knew. Afterwards, we go back into focused mode and pare down the connections that we made to the best, most helpful ones.
Once you have repeated this process a few times, the information will really stick.
In fact, too much focus really can be a bad thing when it comes to problem-solving. The longer we keep our brains in focused mode, the more we experience tunnel vision—outside the box thinking becomes impossible.
This phenomenon (known as the Einstellung effect) removes our ability to reset the parameters or premise of the problem and blocks creativity. That’s why when you’re feeling stuck or frustrated with a topic, it’s best to step back and take a break to let the diffuse mode run for a while. Too much diffuse thinking, on the other hand, will prevent you from ever getting the details of anything straight.
As it turns out, our brain probably has two modes for good reasons. We need them both in order to really process information that comes our way. So take advantage of them both when you’re learning to see better results. If nothing else, you finally have a scientific excuse to take that nap you want!
This is also part of the reason why Brainscape, our online flashcard learning program, is such an effective study tool; it allows you to study hard in your spare time, then return easily to your daily activities to allow your learning time to sink in. If you want to start learning, then check out the tons of Brainscape flashcards available in our library!
And remember that we don't only offer study tools, but also study wisdom. Since we have years of experience working and building a successful learning tool, we also collected the best study methods to learn more effectively with less total effort.
Best of luck in your learning endeavors!