The Science of Learning: Focused and Diffuse Thinking

Have you ever felt stuck while studying? When students feel like they have hit an academic wall, it is difficult to know what to do next. In times past, psychologists and other experts tended to suggest that the best path forward was to buckle down and intensely focusing on subject matter for long periods at a time. However, recent research suggests otherwise.

Focused and Diffuse Thinking: An Analogy

Cognitive experts have identified that the human brain utilizes two processes when learning new information:  focused and diffuse thinking.  In order to understand the way these processes work, it helps to use an analogy. Picture a pinball machine. In this game, you pull a plunger and release it, sending a ball into the game table to bounce off rubber bumpers and score points. The areas of the game table where the rubber bumpers are close together represent focused thinking.

The ball – our thoughts – bounce around within a limited area very quickly. We think attentively and concentrate only on information that is pertinent to the subject matter at hand. Conversely, in areas of the game table where rubber bumpers are spaced more widely is representative of diffuse thinking, where thoughts are somewhat random and unrestricted.

The Brain Utilizes Both Processes to Learn

It may seem that focused and diffuse ways of thinking are polar opposites of each other. As it turns out, they work in tandem.  Learning is most effectively accomplished when students use both processes within the same study session.

Cognitive scientists suggest that the best way to master new material is to start out dedicating about 20-25 minutes reading and understanding the material in an intensely focused manner without distraction. Then switch to diffuse mode for at least 15 minutes by taking a break and letting the mind wander.

Diffuse thinking tends to encourage the internalization of subject matter by making new and creative connections to previously learned material. Experts agree that repeating this sequence two or three times in one study session effectively solidifies information in the brain.

In order to learn, you might think that you need to spend hours of focused mental energy pouring over study material. However, it turns out that your brain utilizes two types of thinking to most effectively learn. No doubt, blocks of time devoted to intense focus are necessary, but you also need rest periods within the same study session.  It’s the alternation between focused and diffuse mode that enables your brain to make information really stick and quality learning to take place.

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