1-6 Focused Versus Diffuse – Furthering Your Understanding

دوره: Mindshift- Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential / فصل: Change IS possible / درس 6

1-6 Focused Versus Diffuse – Furthering Your Understanding

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Your thoughts could bounce further, by analogy, this is why when you're focusing hard on a problem, you sometimes get stuck within the tight spaces of the bumpers. Getting your attention off the topic helps open up the very different diffuse mode networks, and lets your brain find new paths for thinking about what you're trying to understand. Incidentally, the habit of writing down a problem that you're trying to solve before going to bed will help you calm your mind and let your nighttime brain think of a solution.

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In our previous MOOC, Learning How to Learn, we described the two very different modes of operation of the brain, focused and diffuse. Focused, if you’ll remember, is when you’re concentrating. Diffuse is when you’re not thinking about anything at all in particular. We used a pinball machine metaphor to explain these two different modes. In the focused mode, the rubber bumpers of the brain were closer together, while in the diffuse mode, they were farther apart. Your thoughts could bounce further, by analogy, this is why when you’re focusing hard on a problem, you sometimes get stuck within the tight spaces of the bumpers. And you can’t see another, better way to approach the problem. We also described the importance of developing a library of neural chunks. Well practiced, mental patterns, that you can easily draw into your mind. This is all part of the process of gaining expertise in a subject. Metaphors and analogies can make learning super simple. Remember, these metaphors and analogies often just serve to give us a sense of key ideas. Whenever we’ve reached the limits of an analogy for helping us to understand something, we can always just throw that analogy away and pick up a new one. Of course, there’s often many different analogies that we can use to explain any concept. So let’s review, while having a little fun by describing the focus and diffuse modes using some different analogies. It turns out that your brain puts its energy, for the most part, into either the focused mode or the diffuse mode. It can’t be in both modes at same time, not unless you’re ingesting certain forms of mushrooms and we’re certainly not suggesting you do that. Focused mode is what happens when you concentrate, it turns on virtually instantly. Diffuse mode, on the other hand, is when you’re not concentrating on anything. Instead, it’s when your thoughts are moving randomly, like when you’re sitting on a bus, standing in a shower or going for a walk. Diffuse mode kind of sneaks up on you, you’re often not aware of having fallen into the diffuse mode. So, let’s look a little more closely at what’s going on in the focused versus the diffuse modes. Here’s a top scale view looking down onto your brain, you can see the little ears right here, and the nose is on the top. And we know that the brain is kind of like a set of networks, this is the focused mode network. Look how small those little meshes are, these are sometimes called task positive networks. Because different parts of the networks are activated depending on what task you’re working on. Multiplication say, versus conjugating a verb in Spanish or kicking a soccer ball. What we call the diffuse mode is like a different set of networks, with much bigger meshes. Diffuse mode is actually a catchall term that we use to signify any of the neural resting states. The most prominent resting state, incidentally, is called the default mode network. The thing about the diffuse mode, is that it helps us to make these intuitive leaps, connections between new ideas you didn’t realize were connected. The diffuse mode has another purpose as well, it’s the mode we fall into when we’re trying to consolidate and understand new information. We’ll get to that in just a minute, the diffuse mode only turns on when you aren’t thinking about anything in particular. So you can’t just concentrate and turn it on like you can with the focused mode. But the relaxed, diffuse mode, is the mode that often does that background processing that helps us solve difficult problems and understand difficult concepts. This is why, when you’re concentrating intently on something, and you find yourself getting really frustrated, the best thing you can do is often to get your concentration off what you’re trying to understand. Getting your attention off the topic helps open up the very different diffuse mode networks, and lets your brain find new paths for thinking about what you’re trying to understand. Then, when you later return to focusing, you’ll find yourself in a better place, mentally. The problem or the concept will suddenly start to make sense. Incidentally, the habit of writing down a problem that you’re trying to solve before going to bed will help you calm your mind and let your nighttime brain think of a solution. There’s actually another, very different way, to think about focused and diffuse modes and that’s using something called an excavator. When you focus on something, your mind is in receiving mode, information is pouring in. When you’re in diffuse mode, on the other hand, your brain is turning around, so to speak, and placing that new information in other parts of your brain. Organizing and making sense of the new material, you can only be in one mode at the same time. The inputting focused mode or the organizing, diffuse mode, where the brain is consolidating that information. This is why it’s really important to take little study breaks, and give yourself time where you’re not focusing on the material at hand. The little break is what helps the brain consolidate the new information so it can later think more creatively about it. Go ahead, take a little break now, try to move around a little while you do it. You’ll be surprised at how much it refreshes you.

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