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Focused vs Diffuse Mode: Why Students Need Both

We have all experienced the “flow” state where productivity levels are high, and you feel inspired to conquer things on your to-do list. When you easily block out distraction, you are in the focused mode! Of course, we would choose to stay in this focused state forever if it were possible.

We now know that it is necessary to move from productivity to a more relaxed state in order to do our best work thanks to Barbara Oakley. Throughout the day, we switch between two modes: focused mode and diffuse mode.

Focused Mode

When we think about learning, a picture comes to mind: books scattered, pens and paper, soft music playing in the background or a student in the classroom vigorously taking notes or practicing notecards. Students are actively working to solidify understanding by previewing and  reviewing material, writing a paper, or practicing a drill in soccer practice. This concentration kicks the prefrontal cortex in high gear! Foundational knowledge is established by laying neural pathways and building a solid ground to access later.  The focused mode is when you are actively trying to learn or practice something.

Think of focused mode as a bright light that shines directly on the most important information.

Diffuse Mode

The diffuse mode allows us to make connections subconsciously. Instead of only activating the prefrontal cortex, the mind is allowed to wander freely and connections can occur throughout the brain. When we let our minds wander, our brain has the opportunity to link neural pathways that would otherwise be missed in focused mode.

Think of the diffuse mode as a subtle, dim light that allows you to see a larger surface area.

Diffuse mode is not procrastination! It is important to note that the foundational knowledge must be clearly established first. Students must study to understand the details and depth of a subject before new and insightful connections can be created in the diffuse mode. The diffuse mode allows us to step out of tunnel vision and into creative thinking. A few popular diffuse mode activities include mulling over ideas in the shower, going for a walk to clear your mind, and sleeping.

Use both modes for maximum efficiency

To maximize our efforts, we need both modes in the appropriate doses. The prefrontal cortex, where the focus mode occurs, is anything but automatic! You have to consciously start practicing and turn on your executive functioning skills.

Time is the most valuable resource when it comes to utilizing both modes.  Our brains never fully turn off, so the time spent daydreaming can be beneficial to unlocking new perspectives! However, if your student is cramming for a test, he no longer has the chance to switch between the modes.

Focused Mode

  • New information
  • Detail-oriented
  • Depth
  • Applying new knowledge


  • Connecting information previously learned
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Big picture
  • Different perspectives

By giving ourselves ample time, we use our brain to our advantage. Brain breaks work wonders if a student is stuck on a problem. Younger students should take a minute or two break after being “stuck” on a problem for 5 – 10 minutes. Older students should take a 5 minute break after being “stuck” for 10-15 minutes.

To have true mastery of a subject, we need to understand the details of a subject in relationship to the context of the bigger picture. Students will grasp complex ideas more quickly when using both modes to their advantage.

Evan Weinberger


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