There’s a reason they sell waterproof notepads.

You’ve heard it too… someone says “I figured it out in the shower” or “I had a great idea out on a walk,” or “I remembered the name of my 6th grade math teacher just as I was trying to fall asleep.” 

“Of course you did!” I always think to myself. It’s because your brain was in diffuse mode.

What is diffuse mode?

Barbara Oakley introduced us to the notions of focused and diffuse modes of thinking in A Mind for Numbers (and it’s a powerful enough concept to deserve mention and explanation in all of her books!). These labels refer to times when our brains are in either a highly attentive state (focused) or in more of a resting state (diffuse). Both are important for learning, and we spend our days switching from one to the other. We can’t be in both states at the same time. 

In focused mode, our brains are working. We’re thinking, writing, speaking, building, creating, problem-solving, etc. (I call this GETTING.SH*T.DONE). But in that mode we also run into stumbling blocks. We’re not quite sure what to write next, what formula to apply to that problem, why this thing isn’t working well, how to approach that person about the situation, or which shade of green will work best for this project. If we continue to focus on where we’re stuck, we may find our way through, but there is a different path – one we often take without even realizing that in doing so, we’re continuing to work the problem. That is, we go into diffuse mode. 

When do our brains go into diffuse mode?

When we take a break – go for a walk, a shower, a nap or even just turn our attention away from the work and relax for a few moments (I work sitting next to a big picture window looking out over my backyard) – we can enter diffuse mode. In diffuse mode we’re no longer actively working on the problem. We’re not taking a walk to TRY to get unstuck, we’re just taking a walk. Of course, it is to get away from the problem and let our minds wander. Oakley uses the metaphor of a pinball game to illustrate the difference. When we’re focused on the problem, our brain’s pinball is bouncing among a set of bumpers that are close to one another and going in predictable patterns among the known neural connections in our brains. We’re essentially reviewing information we know is related to the problem we’re trying to solve. In diffuse mode, those pinball bumpers are further apart and the pinball can travel in other patterns and access a much wider array of neural connections. In diffuse mode we’re thinking more broadly with a different perspective than when we’re actively trying to solve a problem. This makes it more likely that we will get unstuck – either during diffuse mode, or when we return to focused mode. 

What kinds of activities make for good diffuse mode time?

  • Bathing/showering
  • Walking/running/biking
  • Drawing/painting
  • Meditating
  • Sleeping
  • Driving
  • Listening to music (especially instrumental)
  • Looking out the window

What generally doesn’t make for good diffuse mode time?

  • Checking email
  • Scrolling social media
  • Working on something else
  • Having conversations with people

Each of these activities has you focused on different “work” and as such, won’t allow your brain to relax. 

Our minds are eventually going to beg for a diffuse mode break no matter how much focus we try to maintain.

-Shane Parrish, Farnam Street blog

How to make diffuse mode thinking work for you

For diffuse mode to work to your advantage, you have to let go of your thinking. I know, it’s hard! But it doesn’t require you to NOT think. You just need to allow yourself to relax and turn your attention away from whatever you’re working on for a few moments. Start by thinking about how warm the water is, how pretty the trees are, or how you know the route to your favorite store like the back of your hand, and then just let your thoughts go wherever they will. If your mind returns to the problem and starts working on it again, you can gently remind yourself that you’re not working on that right now, and that you’ll return to it when you’re ready. That said if the answer comes to you (my best friend’s middle name that I couldn’t for the life of me come up with earlier in the day popped into my head at the sink washing my hands), then go with it! 

BONUS! Creativity is often released when we’re in diffuse mode. (Hence the need for that waterproof notepad! 😉)

“I have noticed that when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing – their outer lives. Sitting round in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling – their inner lives. They speak subjectively, they argue less, there are longer pauses.

To sit alone without any electric light is curiously creative. I have my best ideas at dawn or at nightfall, but not if I switch on the lights – then I start thinking about projects, deadlines, demands, and the shadows and shapes of the house become objects, not suggestions, things that need to done, not a background to thought.

The famous “sleep on it” when we have a dilemma we can’t solve is an indication of how important dream time is to human wellbeing. The night allows this dream time, and the heavier, thicker dark of winter gives us a chance to dream a little while we are awake – a kind of reverie or meditation, the constellation of slowness, silence and darkness that sits under the winter stars.” 

Jeanette Winterson, novelist, quoted from The Guardian

Pair diffuse mode with retrieval practice for the ultimate learning boost

Have you recently read a book, taken a course or learned something new that you want to remember, and tried retrieval practice to make it stick? Maybe you tried something like the Feynman Technique and got frustrated because you discovered gaps in your memory of the material? Don’t forget (pun intended!), learning is supposed to be hard work. As you continue to exercise your brain and use various strategies for learning, add diffuse mode to your list. You’ll be surprised at how much you actually DO remember once you give your brain

AI generated abstract painting of brain exploding with ideas

Created with DALL-E2: Abstract painting of brain exploding with ideas

a chance to relax and unwind. 

Diffuse mode thinking is important because it allows our brains to make connections and associations among seemingly unrelated ideas. It allows us to generate new ideas and solutions and it can also be used for relaxation, stress management, and self-reflection. What more can we ask from one of the most pleasant “brain states?”

Need more on learning? 

Read my other articles on retrieval practice.

Interested in a talk or workshop on any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.