I am insatiably curious about the topic of "accelerated learning".

Think about that scene in the matrix where trinity downloads the skill of how to fly a helicopter into her brain in a few seconds. :)

By "accelerated learning", I mean committing new information to long term memory in a highly recallable fashion with maximum efficiency - i.e. minimum time.

I believe that developing the optimal accelerated learning algorithm requires a deep understanding of how the brain actually learns (at the level of neurons and synapses).

It is from this perspective, that I am considering these 2 "modes" of the brain called "focused mode" and "diffused mode".

I would like to state my intuition about how these 2 modes are used by the brain to learn and then have someone more knowledgeable than I tell me where I am wrong. Or perhaps improve the explanation.

My intuition is that "diffused mode" is about making associations.
i.e. Noticing how things are similar.

When we learn something new, we try to associate it to something we already know.
Like maybe when you see a pomelo for the first time, you might associate it to a grapefruit.

My intuition is that "focused mode" is about making discernments. i.e. Noticing how things are different.

For example, a pomelo is different than a grapefruit in several ways:
It's bigger.
It's inner skin is thicker.

I think the process of learning the concept of "pomelo" then involves refining a "sparse distributed representation" of the object in the brain.

A "sparse distributed representation" is just a bunch of neurons that fire together to signify the thought of a unique concept.

So learning involves starting with a sparse distributed representation for an existing concept that we are familiar with, and then making changes to that representation via discernment until we have a new unique "sparse distributed representation" for our new concept.

Is this correct?

  • $\begingroup$ I think answer 1 is excellent, I just wish to add that if you are interested in deepening your understanding of the distinction, Barbara hints, in her work outside the MOOC, that the diffuse mode is essentially something called the default mode network (or Default Network). She references an excellent paper which will offer a deep distinction between the two modes and evidence for the Default Network. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21677128 Its an open source publication so you can just readit in your browser. $\endgroup$
    – Pete
    Apr 25, 2017 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to CogSci. Could you elaborate your answer to target the specific question? Otherwise your post looks more like a comment than an answer. I appreciate the reference and I'd rather not convert it into a comment. However, answers are reserved for answers, not for comments. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Apr 25, 2017 at 11:28

1 Answer 1


A big assumption here is that diffuse mode is something you can activate at any time. Where as most teachers on the subject view it as a process that activates through inattention (think daydreaming). Inattention can be difficult with work, commute, home, and family as sources of stress or focus.

Another is that focused mode is only for unique identification. Every researcher I've come across acknowledges that making connections is readily available in the focused mode, but it's going to be more limited to the concept you're working with. In her class on Learning how to Learn Barbara Oakley states,

With the focus mode... You're able to figure out the problem you're trying to solve or the concept you're trying to understand while it's related to something you're rather familiar with.

Segway into the zero-sum-game of these modes. While one is turning on the other is turning off. Not in a binary sense, but along a spectrum. Which is why you might let a problem sit in the back of your mind while you work on similar subjects and all of a sudden you reach an 'aha' moment and make the final necessary connection. Or at least move onto next steps. Instead of inattention to a problem leading you straight into sandy beaches. Again from Barbara Oakley,

As far neuroscientists know right now, you're either in the focus mode or the diffuse mode of thinking. Being in one mode seems to limit your access to the other mode.

Salvador Dali would take advantage of the diffuse mode and spoke about such with his "sleeping key" method. The idea is to relax to the point you're about to enter the first stage of sleep while keeping a primary thought in mind. As you drift off you'll lose focus letting your mind make connections, until the key drops and you wake up ready to jot down ideas or work.

Further Reading:

  • A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley
  • Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, "Rest is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain's Default Mode for Human Development and Education"
  • $\begingroup$ This helps to increase my understanding. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Ryan
    Feb 19, 2016 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexRyan I updated with references $\endgroup$ Feb 20, 2016 at 2:29

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