(These are my notes from the Coursera course: Learning How To Learn, which I highly recommend to everyone)

Diffuse Mode vs Focused Mode

  • There are two basic modes of thinking, the diffuse mode and the focused mode.

  • The focused mode is used to concentrate on a specific area, and uses known patterns of thought to solve a specific problem.

  • The diffuse mode is more big picture. It is not focused on a specific area of the brain and creates new neural connections. It’s when your mind is just wandering freely.

  • You can only be in one thinking mode at a time.

  • When learning something new, you have to go back and forth between the two states. Focusing on key areas to strengthen specific mental patterns, and letting your mind go back to the diffuse mode to create new connections for new concepts.

  • Salvador Dali, famous surrealist painter, got his inspiration by sitting on a chair and relaxing while holding keys that would drop just as he fell asleep. The relaxing would put his brain in the diffuse mode and allow him to explore strange ideas, then the instant waking up would put him back in the focused mode, ready to apply those strange ideas to a new piece of art.

The Brain

  • The old view of the brain is that once it matures, the strengths of the synapses can be adjusted by learning, but the pattern of connectivity doesn’t change very much.

  • The current view is that patterns of connectivity can change even after you mature.

  • You’re not the same person you were when you went to sleep. While you sleep the brain is constantly re-wired. You wake up with an ‘upgraded’ brain. (free of charge)


  • The brain’s pain centers are activated when people see work that they don’t want to do. The natural response to pain is to avoid it, so we try to find a more pleasant task, then we get temporary happiness. But it turns out that if we just did that difficult task, the discomfort would go away not long after starting it. The trick is to get over the initial barrier of actually starting it.

  • The Pomodoro timer is a great tool to avoid procrastination. It’s basically setting a 20 minute timer and committing to doing focused work for that time, then taking a short break to relax your brain and go back to the diffuse mode.


  • Subjects like Math and Science are harder to learn because they’re very abstract.

  • The more abstract a topic is, the more important it is to create strong neural connections. And strong neural connections are created by consistent practice.

  • Taking breaks is good because it allows the diffuse mode to work in the background. You get to let the pot simmer a bit, and get the extra flavors in, before adding the rest.

  • Cramming is bad because you don’t take a proper break, so the pot never gets to simmer, the food is undercooked, and the flavors never sink in.


  • Working memory, contrary to popular belief, only holds about 4 ‘chunks’ of information. (Those chunks may hold what appears to be multiple pieces of information)

  • Long term memory is huge, but there’s so much stuff in there that it might be hard to find what you want. This is why you need to revisit memories a few times to strengthen the retrieval patterns.

  • To move information from your working memory to long term memory, you need to do spaced repetition. It’s better to do something 10 times over the course of 20 days than to do it 50 times in one day. Your brain needs time for things to settle in before you can build on it.


  • Being awake creates toxins in your brain that slowly begin to drain your mental abilities. Pulling an all nighter means you fill your brain with these toxins. Sleep clears out these toxins, so it’s definitely wise to sleep before an exam.

  • The brain also strengthens the things you’ve studied while you sleep. It goes over neural patterns you’ve practiced and makes them stronger.

  • One good trick to better studying is to plant the seed for the diffuse mode right before sleeping. Study hard right before you take a nap. If you want to go even harder, set the intention to dream about that topic. All of this helps you to (while sleeping) consolidate memories into easier to grasp chunks. Who said sleeping was unproductive?