How We Learn

How We Learn

Optimize your learning based on the latest science.


9 min read

How We Learn...


  • Our brains process information in different ways depending on our level of familiarity with the subject matter.

  • There are two prominent thinking modes, focused and diffuse.

  • Understanding how our brain can switch context between focused and diffused thinking modes, can help us learn new topics more efficiently.

  • Developing a good learning framework can allow you to transition effectively between these different modes while increasing the length of deep focus times.

  • Creativity is a product of both of these modes.

Learning is a skill that’s surely best when picked up early in life. I think we can all agree that the process of learning itself is a life-long journey. In fact, I often find that when I learn a new subject, the list of what I have to learn actually grows as I progress through the material. I believe that it's practically impossible to learn everything or even just everything about a single topic in most cases.

And in my experience, I haven't come across a single person that could honestly tell me they knew everything there was to know about a given topic. We have all been learning our entire lives -- and while I can't speak for you -- I know for myself that no one has actually ever taught me how to learn.

Generally speaking, my idea of learning — was simply cramming as much information as possible — and then applying it as soon as possible. Because I crammed, I had no hopes of retaining that information for longer periods of time. It'll be gone by the time I move on to the next topic. The best I could hope for is to apply it to my work as fast as possible - while it's still fresh in my mind. This indeed points to certain obvious fundamental flaws in not only how I learn, but sadly, how we teach as a society as well.

Just the thought of learning under these circumstances can be an incredibly daunting experience. If we can't reliably expect that we will retain the information that we take in, then doesn't that make this entire process an exercise in futility? Truthfully for me the answer is a resounding, yes! Continuing to learn this would would be extremely counter-productive, especially when research on the topic has come a long way.

In recent years, the study of our brains has yielded some intriguing results. I'm no neuroscientist, but thankfully there are several experts who've put together lots of material over the years to help us apply these findings in our everyday lives.

I'm going to do my best to distill these concepts in this post, but if you're interested in understanding how we actually process information as humans then I can't recommend this free Coursera course enough!

And here's a short clip from that course that introduces this concept by Dr. Barbara Oakley.

Focused vs Diffuse Thinking

Research shows that our brain processes information differently depending on our familiarity with the subject matter. In other words, is this something that is familiar to us? — or is this a brand new topic or skill — which is inherently unfamiliar and new to us? The brain uses two distinctly different modes of thought in order to process these distinct types of information.


The focused mode is a processor-intensive function of the brain. It's activated in moments of deep concentration - such as learning a new topic- or during moments of deliberate practice. It occurs when you're tuned into the details of an activity, consciously processing every aspect of it.

When it comes to learning, focused thought can present itself at several times, I like to think of them as flavors:

  • Cookies & Cream

    focus occurs in moments when you're most engrossed in the subject matter, where it is "resonating with you" and you're able to move freely from topic to topic.

  • Rocky Road

    focus occurs in moments when you're consciously trying to understand a particular topic and you've dedicated your full attention to this task, this realtes to information that may be harder to process or a completely new concept/paradigm from what we're used to.


The diffuse mode is used to solidify new concepts and form new neural pathways. It generally, occurs in a semi-resting state when your brain is not actively processing any particular topic and you generally have no conscious control over its processes.

This is similar to muscle memory when comparing with athletes, an athlete perfects a certain "move" with deliberate practice, and over time they get better and faster at repeating that same task until they can perform the "move" effortlessly as if it was secondly nature.

Neural pathways work similarly in our brains forming new connections between existing skills in our memory and newly learned information processed via focused thought. To achieve this subconscious moves throughout various centers of our brain as relevant skills and information are accessed to form those new pathways. Allowing for this process is the first step to mastery in any subject matter.

The Sweet Spot

When learning you've got to find some structure in your schedule to allow for sessions of both focused and diffused thinking modes to occur organically. This is essential for two main reasons:

  • We can only deliberately enter the focused mode of thought — there is no surefire way to induce diffuse thinking

  • Focused thought while powerful, can only be sustained for short periods of time, as again, this is a very expensive computational process for our brains.

  • Achieving a balance with focused and diffuse thinking modes can help greatly enhance your creativity.

The Framework

To get better with focus, you can use the Pomodoro technique,

  • set aside a short specified period of time to take in a new topic. (Generally, I like to work in 25-30min sprints,)

  • then allow for anywhere between 5-10 mins in between each focus sprint

It's generally recommended to do an activity that gets your mind off of the focused work you were doing. This type of context switching seems to help induce the diffused mode more reliably over time and with practice. And it could be anything from taking a walk to reading a book or even just talking to some friends/co-workers.This gives me 25 min of focused time and then (hopefully) another 5-10mins of diffused processing of those thoughts.

The Zone

"The zone" is an elusive place, that sits between the two modes. It's more easily accessed when dealing with familiar information, or when engaging in a repetitive task. It requires a certain expertise with the subject which is why people who have mastered a skill to a certain degree often find it easier to get into the zone.

Athletes, artists, and musicians are generally able to access "the zone" more deliberately than students seem to be able to. Math and the sciences are particularly hard to learn and researchers believe this may be due to the abstract nature of the subject matter. Mathematical and scientific symbols create a layer of abstraction that is connected with our intuition, this makes it a more emotional mechanism. This type of input is inherently abstract and therefore neural connections can take longer periods to form, and usually require considerable repitition in order to solidify.

Practice Makes Permanent

This is why repetition is key to learning these more abstract topics, actively engaging in the act of recall, which helps trigger the process of forming new neural pathways. This is similar to how athletes or musicians develop muscle memory through repetitive practice.

While we're on the topic of practice, here's a Tedx Talk on learning that discusses some of the importance of practice...

When in the zone, you're intensely focused on the task at hand through a form of tunneled focus, thoughts and input are processed seemingly instantaneously through your subconscious. This gives you access to a "limbo state" where you can benefit from the best of both modes!

Many historically famous individuals have used various techniques to force their brains to transition from one mode to the other. Most of them are just different ways of tricking the brain to go into diffused thinking mode by triggering a resting state to access the diffused mode and then using that as momentum to jump into focused thought or deliberate practice on a particular subject.

The issue here is that these moments can only be sustained for short periods of time (if and when you're able to trigger them). Because of this your results will vary, and are therefore not reliable.

I think the key for those of us on the learning journey should instead to be find a balance between the two modes provide ample time for each process to take hold and have an effect on our overall learning progress. This is how body builders approach building muscle, by working out different parts of their body on different days.

In our case, as it applies to learning, it's more about delibrately using focused thought to take in information, while allowing ample time in between for rest periods so that our our brain can effectively process the information and form relevant new neural connections for us.

I've also found it very helpful to apply the learnings immediately after a rest period, rather than moving onto the next topic. It seems that when I do learn this way, I tend to have better access to the material.

The Flow

But in psychology circles, there's this concept of the "flow state" — which is similar to the zone, although I like to think of as being "deep in the zone".

This is where your focus and diffused thought modes are seemingly on auto-pilot, and you're essentially just along for the ride, your brain does most of the heavy lifting -- taking in sensory input and processing information on the fly -- which allows your creativity to surface and flow.

Ideally being in the flow is like - you getting out of your own way. You're not overthinking, you're not under-thinking, in fact, you're barely thinking at all. You're simply flowing, or should I say, going with the flow.

This realization eventually reminded me of a Tedx talk (thanks to what I believe was a new neural pathway forming...) by Dandapani, which talked about concentration as it relates to meditation. He elaborates on some of the same concepts I've discussed here in a brilliantly simple way with a focus exercise you can follow along with towards the end. I highly recommend watching it the whole way through.

So there you have it, I hope that you'll use this information to your benefit and apply this to your learning journey. There's a lot to learn and not a moment to lose, so get started today!

If you've found this post helpful, I suggest digging deeper into the subject since I'm no expert on the matter, it's important that you do your own research and find ways that you can best apply this to your learning in the way that best suits your needs.

Hey everyone, I'm Gaurang, a full-stack developer that is constantly learning and building in public. I love that I was able to change my career at such a late stage in life all by learning online with so many different resources. I generate content to reinforce what I'm learning and to help others like me in the future.

If you enjoyed my content, please feel free to connect with me wherever you spend your time online.