Barbara Oakley's "Learning how to Learn" and "Mindshift" courses claim that having some break time in which diffuse mode thinking (afaik it's the same as default mode network) is active between study sessions (at least if you acquire knowledge or practice intellectual skills) is important. She says that seemingly unrelated concepts get linked, and the brain figures out what to do with all this new information during diffuse mode. It also boosts creativity. From my own experience diffuse mode also helps me think of ways to use the new information, e.g. to achieve my goals or to study more effectively (maybe it's a part of the "creativity" thingy).

Mindful meditation seems to provide multiple benefits for mental health. I wonder if replacing many breaks (aka time when I don't do intellectual work) with meditation is bad because I will not have enough diffuse mode thinking and creativity time.

I've tried 2 types of mindfulness meditation: body scan, during which one sequentially goes over different body parts and listens to the senses in that body part and tries not to think or do anything else; and breathing meditation, during which one focuses on one's breathing and ignores everything else. Just from how I feel during that time, I would say that I am not in diffuse mode during meditation.

What diffuse mode is, citations from A Mind for Numbers:

Since the very beginning of the twenty-first century, neuroscientists have been making profound advances in understanding the two different types of networks that the brain switches between—highly attentive states and more relaxed resting state networks.1 We’ll call the thinking processes related to these two different types of networks the focused mode and diffuse mode

Edward de Bono is the grand master of creativity studies, and his vertical and lateral terminology is roughly analogous to my use of the terms focused and diffuse (de Bono 1970).

Astute readers will notice my mention that the diffuse mode seems to sometimes work in the background while the focused mode is active. However, research findings show that the default-mode network for example (which is just one of the many resting state networks), seems to go quiet when the focused mode is active. So which is it? My sense as an educator and a learner myself is that some nonfocused activities can continue in the background when focused work is taking place, as long as the focused attention is shifted away from the area of interest. In some sense, then, my use of the term diffuse mode might be thought of as “nonfocused mode activities directed toward learning” rather than simply “default-mode network.”

UPDATE: It turns out the the second week has a video on mindfulness and learning:

researchers can sometimes classify meditation techniques into two different types that seem to be fundamentally different. Focused attention and open monitoring.

Focus attention types of meditations such as mantra, sound or chakra meditation appear to help enhance focus mode type thinking, this kind of meditation sometimes seems to make people feel better.

In contrast, open monitoring types of meditation such as, vipassana and mindfulness, appear to improve diffuse imaginative thinking. With open monitoring, we don't just focus on one thing. Instead we keep our attention open to all aspects of experience without judging or becoming attached to our thoughts.

Part of the reason that building your focusing abilities may help make you feel happier. Is that it appears to suppress the diffuse mode, while it builds the focusing mode. So what does all this mean? It means that meditation can have surprisingly different effects, depending on the type. It's all very complex, and researchers are far from sorting everything out yet. In the end, practices that encourage focusing can be a great benefit for learning. But having some daily time where your mind relaxes and wanders freely is also very important, particularly if you want to encourage creativity. From a particular stand point then if you are a meditator you might try to avoid feeling you should always be stirring your thoughts back into focus, If you catch your mind wondering outside meditation sessions.

Turns out that some types of meditation happen in diffuse mode and others happen in focused mode. My guess would that guided body scan and breathing meditation are focused.

Also I am not sure what she means saying that diffuse mode meditations may improve diffuse imaginative thinking. Did she just randomly blurt it out meaning trying to say that those types of meditation happen in diffuse mode? Or did she say that meaning that if you practice entering diffuse mode by meditating then your diffuse mode becomes better or you will enter it more often?

Also I think that even during diffuse mode meditations, e.g. listening to body sensations that come to attention (I thnk it's diffuse mode, not 100% sure), you don't get creative and don't link concepts and process knowledge, because you're still thinking about body sensations and nothing else.

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    $\begingroup$ From what I read she did not state "that diffuse mode meditations may improve diffuse imaginative thinking"; I read that " open monitoring types of meditation such as, vipassana and mindfulness, appear to improve diffuse imaginative thinking". I agree with your assessment that "guided body scans and breathing mediation are focused". Your update thus seems to answer your question, no? You can always add an answer yourself! :) P.s. You could also always consider emailing the author. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Nov 7, 2017 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ One might approach this indirectly and characterize what does inhibit diffuse thinking and then see how that characterization fits in with the effects of various types of meditation. Something as simple as sleep may affect this. Not getting enough may inhibit it. Getting enough may benefit it. $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2018 at 21:08

2 Answers 2


That's a great question. I've wondered about this myself, given that some forms of meditation - particularly those that aim to exclusively focus on a particular object - seem to be the antithesis of creative thinking.

Here's an article by meditation teacher, Michael Taft, that cites some of the research into focused-attention vs open-monitoring methods of meditation. It supports the statements in your updated post, that open-monitoring methods can support increased creativity. https://wisdomlabs.com/meditation-makes-innovative/


A Note on Resting States, Resting Brains, and Meditative States

A resting state, or ‘somatic rest’, would seem to correspond with a brain at rest or ‘neurologic’ rest, but by definition, somatic and neurologic rest are entirely different things. A resting ‘state’ or somatic rest represents the inactivity of the striatal musculature that results from the application of resting protocols (continual avoidance of perseverative thought represented by rumination, worry, and distraction.). Resting states also are affective states, as they elicit opioid activity in the brain. Resting states in turn may occur in tandem with all levels of non-perseverative thought that are passive or active, from just passively ‘being in the moment’ or being mindful, to actively engaging in complex and meaningful cognitive behavior. The latter cognitive behavior is also additionally affective in nature due to its elicitation of dopaminergic activity, and resulting opioid-dopamine interaction results in a perceived state of ‘bliss’ or ‘flow’. On the other hand, a resting ‘brain’, neurologic rest, or the so-called ‘default mode network’ is a specific type of neural processing that occurs when the mind is in a ‘passive’ state, or in other words, is presented with no or very limited cognitive demands. This results in ‘mind wandering’ that can entail non-perseverative (creative thought) or perseverative thought (rumination, worry). As such a resting brain may or may not correlate with somatic rest, and is correlated with a level of demand, not a kind of demand, as in somatic rest. Like the broad color palate that emerges from the intermix of three primary colors, it may be argued that meditative states are simply emergent properties of two very distinctive neuro-physiological resting states that have separate and easily definable causes. It is remarkable that in the literature of meditation, the neuro-physiology of rest both in body and mind is not defined, with a similar neglect to how neuro-muscular activity is actively shaped by experience or learning. The importance of meditation is very real, and the meditative community is understandably averse to equating it with rest since it makes meditation less ‘special’ or less marketable. But that is my argument nonetheless, which in the end provides a better advocacy of meditation by denying that meditation elicits a unique physiological process or state, which like the concept of ‘phlogiston’, or the imaginary element that enabled fire, impedes rather than furthers scientific inquiry.

from 'The book of Rest' at doctormezmer.com


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