Dual Modes Of Thinking

5th June 2020 | Reading time: 7 min
By Rakesh Singh

Dual modes of thinking


ur one and half kilogram of brain works and employs two different but vital modes of thinking to tackle any piece of work i.e diffused and focused modes. Both are extremely valuable at their own places and serves different purpose and in order to make your best move, you need to master both of them. A good and efficient use of both would lead you to a better outcome over time. But which one is better for us and how can you maintain harmony between the two?

Barbara Oakley, an American professor of Engineering at Oakland University and also the author of book, A Mind For Numbers, explains that how these two modes are completely unrelatable and why it is neccessary for us to switch between them throughout the day. We have programmed ourselves to be in constant pursuit of mindfulness, focused period, deep work, a highly productive state where you can see some tangible results and for sure most of the learning process occurs in focused period. While the diffused mode is also just as important as focused one.

The focused mode, as the world traditionally defines it, is doing a single task or project at a time which minimizes time and attention over anything else. Whenever we maintain a singular point of attention; it activates a particular portion of brain which concentrates on its abilities called 'prefrontal cortex'. In this state of flow - brain ignores every extraneous information around us. Think of how your mind works while reading a book. As you go through a word or sentence, you can't just slip back and ponder the entire work you did yesterday simultaneously. You need to pause for a moment to think anything else. It is only after you put down the book, you can comprehend everything together you learned in diffused mode. It is like combining creativity with execution.

These modes are equally and immensely valuable. You cannot hold the focused mode for too long because at some point your mind will eventually start begging to initiate the relax mode. Learning is a complex process - a language, solving maths problem, musical instrument or chess - requires both modes to work out together. We master the details in focused mode, analyse connections and how everything fits together in diffused mode. This mental oscillation is important. And when you hold the state of mind for too long, you unconsciously force your mind to achieve 'excessive focused' state of mind; where your brain starts relating the two completely unrelatable things. Our mind cannot just remain quite because it has evolved since the beginning of time only to find similarity, connections, patterns and meaning out of something. A tendency of brain termed as 'pareidolia'.

For example, if you take a closer look at the image used at the top of the article, your brain will somehow find a way to relate image with message of this article because this is what your brain has been doing since the day you were born i.e FINDING MEANING. But I assure you that there is not even a little resemblance between the words and image used for the article you are reading. It is just a random image that popped inside my head while writing the entire post. It would become easy to understand when you stare at the image with an activated diffused mode.

The opposite of focused is not unfocused. Unfocused means is to be distracted (checking social media, playing games or doing things aimlessly). It is merely a state of inefficiency or waste. While there is a complementary state of focused mind called diffused mind. It means when we make progress by maintaining a subtle but equal clarity of mind. Diffused thinking is when you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random. This state of mind does not activates only a specific portion of brain but rather happens all over. With focused thinking, you concentrate and process specific information very deeply; with diffused mode, the brain scans and examines much more information at once but in less depth.

History is sprinkled with the examples of many discoveries that involved the combined state of diffused and focused mode. But in many cases, the biggest insight came during the span of diffused thinking and solid development work was achieved in focused mode.

Albert Einstein figured out the 'The Theory of Relativity' while he was having an argument with his peer colleague. Then he spent decades refining and curating his theories for the publication and worked until the day before his death. Various books of Stephen King began as a simple sentences scribbled down on a notebook after every drive or walk (diffused mode) and then he turned his ideas into a book (focused mode). Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali both practiced a self-made ritual of taking a fifteen minutes of power-nap to generate ideas. Similarly, John Kerouac who wrote a novel, On The Road, took seven years of travel and drawing connections between his experiences. After years of planning and drafting, he wrote his masterpiece within three weeks on a 120 foot long tracing paper only to avoid the number of sheets in his typewriter.

The ultimate challenge is to cultivate an efficient state of mind, depending on what we are trying to accomplish.

Some studies has also explored and supported the idea that we need both type of thinking modes. Inside a paper entitled under the name 'The Richness of Inner Experience: Relating Styles of Daydreaming To Creative Process", Zedelius and Schooler says that, "Research has supported the theorized benefit of stimulus independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation." When the volunteers were asked to come up with novel uses of common objects like brick and paperclip, a very useful test of creativity, individuals who were given breaks to engage in tasks which facilitated diffused thinking came up with many new ideas. So how can we maintain a harmony between the two modes together?

Which one is more important?

As it turns out, both are important. While these modes are in opposition to each other to work because at first you need to understand the fundamentals of a topic without any distractions. Then we use diffused mode to passively internalize what we have learned and executes it into reality. When this cycle gets repeated several times, the information will really stick. That's why our brain has been gifted with such modes and you see it is for good reasons.

It is all good while working with intense and deep focus. But when you run out of ideas and when things start appearing a little rough, then it is an indication that you need to slip back into the diffused mode. When the diminishing results set in, engage with something that promotes mind wandering - excercise, walk, listen to music, talk to a friend or read a book. We are naturally inclined towards the diffused state. Look out of your window or make a coffee when focusing gets too hard. But again there's a problem associated with doing such activity that diffuse thinking can make us feel lazy and guilty. Then our brain starts looking for a mediocre subsutitute like browsing social media which give our mind a break but never let your mind wander freely and truly.

In the same way, Thinking Tales offers you various detailed insights and mental models to master the art of thinking through the article which allows you to study and think in spare time and then return to your everyday activities to sink in to draw meaning and connections from it.

Tagged: ThinkingMinimalismCreativity

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