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The Science of Learning: Distraction Can Be Helpful

By Debra Bell | February 23, 2017 | The Science of Learning
The Science of Learning: Distraction Can Be Helpful

Consider the ten penny brain puzzle below. By moving just 3 pennies, can you form a triangle that points down? (Like this: \/) Try it now. This exercise will show you something about how your brain works.

Were you able to do it? Did you give up? Did it come to you all at once after you took a break? (You can check your answer here.)

Two modes of thinking

When you first tackled this puzzle, your brain went into something called focused mode. In focused mode your thoughts are very precise and you concentrate on what is right in front of you. It is easy to solve a problem in focused mode—if there are clear and systematic steps. However, a drawback is that you can get stuck on wrong assumptions or initial ideas that are not correct. This is called the Einstellung Effect. In the penny puzzle, this might have happened if you thought wait, I need to move 6 pennies to make the triangle point down. Getting stuck on that idea will block your ability to think about the problem in a new way.

Happily, our brains have another mode which researchers call diffuse mode. In diffuse mode your brain is not focused.  Our brains automatically shift to diffuse mode when we do  “mindless” tasks like jogging, riding in a car, or taking a nap. What’s fascinating is that our brains will continue to work on problems while in diffuse mode. We refer to  this phenomenon when we say something “is in the back of my mind.” In diffuse mode, our brains can generate new and innovative solutions to problems. When we aren’t in focused mode,  it is easier for our brains to make new neural pathways or connect seemingly unrelated ideas.

Why is this true? Let’s return to the puzzle again. Imagine you spent 20 minutes staring at it and trying different arrangements and you just could not get the answer. You got up in frustration and went into the kitchen. You absentmindedly washed some dishes and then returned to the puzzle and the answer came to you suddenly in a brilliant moment of illumination!

Or maybe not . . . but you probably have had an experience like that. You’re stuck on a problem and then you sleep on it and in the morning you suddenly have a fresh idea. This is because you allowed your brain to shift from focused to diffuse mode.

So how can we use this to help our kids? Give them opportunities to shift from focused to diffuse mode . . . especially when they are in the higher grades and completing more difficult tasks. If they’re stuck or frustrated, that’s a cue they need a break from steady concentration.

Here are some quick ways to help your kids switch brain modes:

  • Work on an unrelated task. This can be as simple as switching subjects.
  • Get them moving with household chores. It gives the brain a break and helps you too!
  • Take a short nap
  • Go outdoors
  • Exercise

If they’re really stuck, then suggest that they revisit the material after a good night’s rest. Try it! It will work for you too.

Coming next . . . memory and how to make learning last.

***For more information on diffuse and focused modes of learning I highly recommend the book A Mind for Numbers by Dr. Barbara Oakley***



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