Nutshell: What birds can tell us about how we learn best

Written by
Future Talent Learning

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

Why lessons from evolutionary biology show us how and why the best ideas come to us when we’re not looking for them.

Have you ever noticed how birds, when scratching and grubbing for food, also keep looking around them? It’s an aspect of evolutionary biology not lost on Professor Barbara Oakley, whose work on focused and diffuse forms of thinking has changed the way we think about how we learn best. 

Sounds like a bit of a stretch? Stick with it…

Oakley’s thinking is based on the neuroscience that suggests the brain switches between two different types of network: highly attentive states and more relaxed default mode networks. She describes the thinking processes related to these networks as, respectively, the focused and diffuse modes. 

For Oakley, birds need both focused and diffuse modes to survive. The focused mode is vital for tasks like foraging for food or caring for offspring. The diffuse mode is useful for scanning the area for predators and other threats. “If you watch birds, they’ll first peck, and then pause to scan the horizon – almost as if they are alternating between focused and diffuse modes”, she explains.

It's not just birds who benefit from splitting these two very different – but equally important – brain functions. It’s become clear that, when it comes to very human traits like learning and creativity, we all have something to learn from our feathered friends. Lifting our heads, looking around us, daydreaming even, might well be the key to the most effective learning of all. 

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. Birds need their focused mode too – and so do we.

Working in harmony: how the two modes work together

While the focused and diffuse modes may seem to work in opposition to each other, both are required in order to learn: you need to understand both the context for the information (diffuse) and the specifics of the subject (focused).

In focused mode, thinking is concentrated on the subject/material at hand. It is a highly attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities in the prefrontal cortex to ignore all extraneous information. It’s activated when you try to learn or practise something, zooming in on the most pertinent information. It is the mode that allows your brain to get into more depth in the subject at hand, learn new material and execute specific tasks. 

In diffuse mode, you allow your brain to relax, make new connections and form new neural patterns. It is not connected with any particular part of the brain. This mode is all about the big picture, making subconscious and unconscious connections to encourage the understanding of new and abstract concepts, as well as approaching problems from different angles. The diffuse mode focuses on the breadth of thoughts and neural connections, rather than the depth. Usually diffuse thinking happens when you do other things; it’s activated when you are walking, sleeping or just letting your mind wander. 

That’s why taking a shower or going for a run to take a break from studying can actually lead to an important breakthrough. While our conscious mind is relaxed, our brain is able to form a creative solution to a problem or finally link ideas that have been eluding us.

Learning requires us to alternate between the modes:

  • Use the focused mode to master the basics without distraction.
  • Use the diffuse mode to synthesise what we have learned and make connections to other things.
  • Go back into focused mode to review the connections made to identify the best, most helpful ones.

Moving between the modes allows us to combine creativity with execution, a symbiotic relationship described by adman David Ogilvy, with characteristic colour:

Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.”

Combining focused and diffuse thinking

It’s not possible to use both modes at the same time. Rather, we need consciously to alternate between them.

Trying to maintain the focused mode for too long is not only impossible and tiring; it can also be counter-productive. Our thinking stagnates and we develop tunnel vision. New ideas won’t flow and we often just can’t see a way through when we hit an obstacle. 

Once we reach this point, Oakley argues that we need to relax and slip into diffuse mode, where we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. We may think that we’re taking a break from thinking, but our minds are still working. 

Many of us will already have had the experience of what psychologists call incubation. By taking a break from consciously working on a problem and engaging in an unrelated task, or resting, our thinking is unconsciously re-energised. New ideas will emerge and seemingly intractable problems become resolvable. 

Here are just a few examples of famous discoveries and ideas that combine diffuse and focused thinking:

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity occurred to him during an argument with a friend. He then spent decades refining and clarifying his theories for publication.

Salvador Dali generated new ideas by sitting in a comfortable chair with a key in one hand. He would let his brain wander freely until he fell asleep and dropped the key, waking him up. He considered the thoughts he captured immediately on waking to be some of his best ideas. 

Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving or walking. But when he starts to write these up, he moves to a focused schedule, writing a set number of words each morning.

How to move between the modes

Acquiring new knowledge and applying it is the job of the focused mode. It’s a crucial part of learning, but it’s tempting when we reach the limits of our focused thinking to try to press on regardless. It is a common problem encapsulated by a phenomenon called the Einstellung Effect, which keeps us focussed on what we already know and removes our ability to rethink the problem we may be grappling with. 

In contrast, we often associate activities which encourage diffuse thinking with being lazy; we may feel guilty for taking time out of our working day or time for study to walk, listen to music or daydream. But to avoid the Einstellung Effect, it’s essential to take the time out to allow our brains to relax and readjust. By detaching from the task at hand and not thinking about it, your brain will start to make the necessary connections. This happens through the diffuse mode of thinking. 

There is a balance to be struck here, though. Too much diffuse thinking will prevent us from ever focusing on the task at hand. Don’t let much-needed diffuse thinking breaks become a distraction. Remember: diffuse thinking without the groundwork laid in focused mode will not have the effects we’re looking for. 

There are number of techniques you can practise to improve how we consciously move between the modes, including:

Giving yourself time to switch modes

If you need to complete some study or a piece of work, start well in advance of any deadlines. This will allow you to benefit from the time needed to switch between modes. 

Working in intense, focused bursts

Many techniques are available to help balance intense focus with brain downtime. For example, use a Pomodoro timer. The Pomodoro Technique suggests setting a 25-minute timer to work focused and without distractions, and then take a 5- to 10-minute break to do something different. Allow yourself to diffuse in your breaks.

Learning to recognise your focused mode boundaries

When learning or practising something, work in the focused mode till you get stuck, or your attention starts to wander, and then consciously shift into diffuse mode. After a while, come back to the problem with your newly built connections.

Sleeping on it

Work a bit on the material or problem right before you go to bed. This way your subconscious will process the new information overnight, and you will wake up with newfound comprehension on the subject.

The bottom line is that our minds will eventually crave a diffuse mode break no matter how good our focus is. Like those birds improving their chances of survival, the trick is to learn when we need to make the shift between modes. Understanding how they work is an essential precursor to using them to best effect. 


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