01 - Introduction to the Focused and Diffuse Modes

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Coursera – Learning How to Learn

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01 - Introduction to the Focused and Diffuse Modes

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What do you do when you just can’t figure

something out?

For zombies, it’s pretty simple.

They can just keep bashing their brains

against the wall.

But living brains are a lot more complex.

It turns out, though, that if you

understand just a little bit of some of

the basics about how your brain works, you

can learn more easily and be less


Researchers have found that we have two

fundamentally different modes of thinking.

Here, I’ll call them the Focused and the

Diffuse modes.

We’re familiar with focusing.

It’s when you concentrate intently on


you’re trying to learn or to understand.

But we’re not so familiar with diffuse


Turns out that this more relaxed thinking


is related to a set of neural resting


We’re going to use an analogy of the game

of pinball to help us understand these two

thinking modes.

Incidentally, both metaphor and analogy

are really

helpful when you’re trying to learn

something new.

If you remember, a pinball game works by,

you pull back on the plunger, release it,


a ball goes boinking out, bouncing around


the rubber bumpers, and that’s how you get


So, here’s your brain, with the ears right

here, and the eyes looking upwards.

And we can lay that pinball machine right

down inside it.

So, there you go.

There’s the analogy for the focused mode.

The blue bumper bumpers here are placed

very close to one another.

See this orange pattern here towards the


It represents a familiar thought pattern.

Maybe involving something simple like

adding some numbers, or

more advanced ideas like literary

criticism or calculating electromagnetic


You think a thought, boom, it takes off,

moves smoothly along.

And then, as it’s bouncing around on the

bumpers, you’re

able to figure out the problem you’re

trying to solve, or.

The concept you’re trying to understand


related to something you’re rather

familiar with.

So look at how that thought moves smoothly

around on the fuzzy underlying orange

neural pathway.

In some sense it’s as if it’s traveling

along a familiar, nicely paved road.

But what if the problem you’re working on

needs new ideas or approaches?

Concepts you haven’t thought of before.

That’s symbolized here by this neural


towards the bottom of the pinball machine


But if you haven’t thought that thought

before, you don’t

even know how that pattern feels or where

it is.

So how are you going to develop that new

thought in the first place?

Not only do you not know where the pattern

is or what the pattern looks like, but

see all the rubber bumpers that are

blocking your

access whatever direction you do decide to

move in?

To get to this new thought pattern, you

need a different way of thinking.

And that’s represented here, by the

diffuse mode.

Look at how widely spaced the rubber

bumpers are.

Thought takes off, look at how it moves

widely, bounces around.

It could travel a long way before being

interrupted by hitting a bumper.

In this diffuse mode of thinking, you can


at things broadly from a very different,

big-picture perspective.

You can make new neural connections

traveling along new pathways.

You can’t focus in as tightly as you often

need to, to finalize any kind of problem


Or understand the finest aspects of a


But you can at least get to the initial


you need to be in to home in on a


Now as far as neuroscientists know right

now, you’re either

in the focused mode or the diffuse mode

of thinking.

It seems you can’t be in both thinking

modes at the same time.

It’s kind of like a coin.

We can see either one side, or the other

side of the coin.

But not both sides at the same time.

Being in one mode seems to limit your

access to the other mode’s way of


In our next video we’re going to see how

some extraordinary

people access their diffuse ways of

thinking to do great things.

Thanks for learning about learning, I’m

Barbara Oakley.


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