Shifting Between Two Modes of Learning

Sharad Saxena

Normally, in the critical stages of schooling the children are asked to focus, be efficient with time and not to waste any. Which is the right thing to do. However, some of them are also told to look at new concepts and problems as adversaries and not give up until they are won over, to look at others who are academically superior and try to get to their level. Slogging, burning midnight oil and relentless struggle are considered key to success. For many, entertainment or relaxation is looked at as a wastage of time. Is that the right approach?  

Learning mathematics or for that matter science needs a deeply creative form of thinking. They need two modes of brain functioning. Focused mode and Diffuse mode. In focused mode, which we have to get into very often, is essential to get a concept or a problem into the brain. It requires full attention, mental energy and will power. But when energy levels start going down and it is difficult to focus it may not be productive to carry on. Beyond this point trying to focus further can block us from accessing fresh approaches needed to understand the concept or solve the problem. This is where the diffused mode comes in. One needs to shift from focused mode to diffused mode, into something that you like, for some time.

To get into diffused mode of the brain the key is to do something else until your brain is consciously free of any thoughts of the problem. Once you are distracted from the problem at hand, the diffused mode gets into action and starts bringing up the big picture to settle the problem or understand the concept. After the break when you return to the problem at hand you will often be surprised at how easily the solution pops into place. Even if a solution does not appear, you will often be further ahead in your understanding of the concept. It would need a phase of hard focused mode again and suddenly it will all be clear. This will be the ‘Aha’ moment.

The time spent in the focused mode before getting into diffused mode must necessarily consist of sincere and sustained effort. Just giving up early without trying hard with a pretext of getting diffused mode will not help. Some of the ways of getting away from focused mode are going for a walk or run, taking bath, exercising, yoga, listening to music especially instrumental, singing or playing some musical instrument, meditating, playing some game involving physical effort and taking a nap. Playing video games, surfing the Internet, texting, going to a movie would have a very limited role in taking you to the diffused mode. Some of you may be worried about wasting time on hobbies in this manner, but in the long run it would be very helpful.

Once, the current world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen was playing against Gary Kasporov as a young kid. In the intense moment of the game, he stood up and turned his back towards the board for some time. This helped him to move from focused mode to diffused mode. Being a genius, he could shift gears in a very short period of time. When he returned to the board, he surprised Kasporov with his moves. You should be careful that the diffused mode period should not be unduly long.

So, next time you find yourself becoming frustrated at something, try taking a mental step back and observe your reaction. Anger and frustration can occasionally have their place in motivating us to succeed, but they can also shut down key areas of the brain that we need in order to learn. Rising frustration is usually a good time-out signal to you, signaling that you need to shift to diffused mode. Many teachers would suggest that if you are tackling a tough problem and not able to crack it in reasonable time, you move to the next problem. Your diffused mode would continue to work in the background. When you later return to the problem you will be pleasantly surprised by the progress you would have made to solve the problem. In the office environment, you would have heard that many problems are resolved at the coffee vending machine. Just the act of getting up from the desk, walking up to the coffee machine and sipping coffee with a colleague or alone takes you temporarily to the diffused mode.

Lastly, sleep is a very critical part of the learning process. It helps to make neural connections needed for normal thinking processes. That is why parents would always advise you to sleep well before an important test the next day.

So, try practicing this approach and let me know if there has been some improvement.  


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