Attentive Thinking

Higher order thinking is when students use complex ways to think about what they are learning. It takes thinking to a whole new level. Students using it are understanding higher levels rather than just memorizing facts. They would have to understand the facts, infer them, and connect them to other concepts. (1)

Attentive thinking is required during higher order thoughts processing. Attentive thinking is also known as focused mode thinking. Focused mode is just what it sounds like, a concentrated, focused form of thinking. (5)

Focused thinking is a highly attentive state of mind where the brain uses its best concentration abilities in the prefrontal cortex to ignore all extraneous information. (2)

The focused mode of thinking is a mode where the brain is “focused” and is directly able to solve problems it is familiar with. (3) It is using our focused attention to think solely about the information we are trying to learn.  During focused thinking, we are sitting down and deliberately practicing something or trying to solve a problem, without distracting ourselves with anything else. (4)

This mode of thinking is usually explained with the “the pinball analogy” If you image the brain like a pinball machine, focused thinking would be your standard difficulty machine with nobs tightly packed and your thoughts bouncing off of those nobs randomly and rapidly. Only through practice do those random paths become ingrained. (the nobs are likened to neurons and neural synapses the pinball) in diffused mode the pinball game is an easier version, the nobs are more widely spaced and the thoughts are freer to take their own path. (5)

When we are in our focused mode of thinking, it’s like we have a one-track mind for the matter at hand. Distractions don’t exist. Whether we are practicing a specific skill like free-throws or slogging through a specific problem, focused thinking allows us to zoom directly in on the most pertinent information. (2)

Focused mode is centered in and around the prefrontal cortex, the area right behind the forehead.  The prefrontal cortex is responsible for much of our executive functions that has to do with decision-making and problem-solving, in addition to controlling our attention and memory. (4) With focused thinking, your brain processes very specific information deeply. (2)

Once students have planned where they want their thoughts to go, started their task or problem solving, persisted at getting the work started, they must focus. Focusing attention and concentrating on thinking is a difficult thing to do. Because of the energy requirements for higher order thinking, as I wrote in the persistence article, the brain will attempt to conserve energy in any way that it can. One of the ways the brain can conserve energy would be considered the opposite of persistence. The brain will shift into neutral mode. Although there are benefits to relaxing and letting your mind wander, engaging in neutral tasks, and daydreaming, these activities do not constitute higher order thinking. (8)

Although focused mode is a required and important element of first learning the material, being in focused mode too long can detract from learning. (4) In fact, too much focus really can be a bad thing when it comes to problem-solving. The longer we keep our brains in focused mode, the more we experience tunnel vision—outside the box thinking becomes impossible. (2)

By focusing on a problem too long, we begin to work within an arbitrary set of parameters and assumptions/premises. Staying in focused mode too long can be detrimental to learning. (4)

Additionally, when stressed, we begin to lose the ability to connect pertinent ideas that is so innate to focused mode.  A little bit of stress allows us to perform at our peak, but too much stress inhibits our ability to think clearly.  This is why the brain doesn’t work quite right when we are angry or afraid. (4)

In order to learn, you might think that you need to spend hours of focused mental energy pouring over study material. However, it turns out that your brain utilizes two types of thinking to most effectively learn. (6) Cognitive scientists suggest that the best way to master new material is to start out dedicating about 20-25 minutes reading and understanding the material in an intensely focused manner without distraction. Then switch to diffuse mode for at least 15 minutes by taking a break and letting the mind wander. (6)

Diffused Mode of thinking is a more relaxed thinking state, one the brain settles into at resting. (5) The Diffuse mode on the other hand, is useful when you are working on a problem you have never seen before, or are having trouble understanding. When you are using the diffuse mode of thinking your brain can jump from idea to idea, concept to concept. (7)

To conclude, the focus or attentive mode of thinking is very important in learning but it is important that this mode of thinking is used alongside the diffuse mode of thinking. Our brain possibly have the two modes for good reasons. We need them both in order to really process information that comes our way. So take advantage of them both when you’re learning to see better results.


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4 thoughts on “Attentive Thinking

  1. Very Interesting blog Desley! I came across this article that weighs the pros and cons of focused and diffused mode of thinking, in terms of which would be better for learning. It states that “When we are in our focused mode of thinking, it’s like we have a one-track mind for the matter at hand. Distractions don’t exist. Whether we are practicing a specific skill like free-throws or slogging through a specific math problem, focused thinking allows us to zoom directly in on the most pertinent information. Diffuse thinking, on the other hand, looks at the big picture. Unlike focused thinking, diffuse thinking is all about distractions. Diffuse thinking happens when you let your mind wander freely, making connections at random. The diffuse mode of thinking does not happen any one area of the brain, but rather all over.”. In terms of which is more important for learning, the answer would be neither as both are required in order to master a topic or make progress on a difficult project.



  2. This certainly makes sense, work then rest. Some subjects people study, if they have sufficient background in the topic, could be investigated this way. When dealing with a topic I have no background in I tend to do the opposite, I scan the material quickly to put it in some perspective and then pour over it again in detail, and then research more information to fill in what I don’t know. Then repeat going over the material as you suggested and researched. Review it intensely and then take a break.
    Neurons learn by repetition and then memories move from short-term to the hippocampus and other cortical regions after the frontal lobe has done its work.


  3. I read a very influential book that has permanently influenced the way I do work. It’s a book called “Deep work: Rules for focused work in a distracted world”. It basically posits that future innovations (if they come) will rely on an individual’s ability to concentrate on tasks, employ metacognitive skills, and REALLY hone down on and question the focused task.

    Thank you for introducing the diffuse mode of thinking to my attention because that sounds like a good way to start a complicated task. That is, by gaining a complete picture of the thing, gaining a basic understanding of its structure, and then using focused attention on the component parts.


  4. The most a person can concentrate for is about 20 -25 minutes before their mind begin to wander. It very difficult to pay attention for a long time. this paper also made me think about students in junior high having to keep silent for an hour or so while listening to the teacher, it makes learning difficult if you aren’t given quick 5 minutes breaks to let your mind wander a bit and distress. if students can only focus for a bit then lectures are not the best way for to pass the information along. A more engaging approach would be better.


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