The Two Modes

The Brain, the Mind and You

Let’s talk about your brain. How is it feeling right now? Maybe it’s a bit tired or sluggish, or maybe you are feeling wide awake. If you were to describe your current emotional state in one word, what would you pick? As I write this, I’d pick content.

Your brain is a separate entity from both you and itself. Imagine your brain resting cosily inside your skull. It feels like you can control it like your hands and feet. So give it a try. Make yourself feel happy right now. Create enthusiasm. Did it work? Maybe not, maybe a little. Maybe you are feeling really pumped right now.

You can control your brain as you can control your hands. That is to say, not very well. Raise your hands in front of you, palms down. Now try to wiggle your middle finger keeping everything else still. Personally, I find that difficult. My point is that control is elusive and illusory. You can give your hands orders and directions, but sometimes it feels as though how they follow them is up to them.

So it is with your mind. Think pleasant thoughts and you will feel happy. But this control works at a distance. It’s not like flipping a switch – happiness will increase overall and slowly, but it won’t be a smooth ride. It will have its ups and downs, even if you jam the lever to ‘up’.

But this is a good thing. When you feel how your brain works, you can coax it to do what you need. Everyone is unique, so how you learn the rules is up to you. Once you know how your mind works, you can drive it to new heights of creativity, energy and wellness.

Your brain has two modes of operation. Let’s work through them together, shall we?


The Diffuse Mode

I wonder if you can get comfortable right now. You can’t let yourself fully relax, so relax as much as you like. As you feel yourself easing into your seat, feel the tension unwind from your shoulders and torso.

When you take some deep breaths, especially while your body is comfortable and your mind is still, your brain shifts into a different style of thinking. This is the Diffuse Mode, where thoughts wash over you like waves and memories bubble up to the surface. Everything is a jumble, but a pleasant one. Slow, steady, relaxed.

Connections between your thoughts are loose. Your brain creates new sounds and images automatically. Most you notice are junk, but some are new and shiny. When you notice this, let it happen. This sensation is the creative process – easy, automatic, peaceful. Imagine your mind widening, and as it does, it touches on more and more thoughts. With each contact, new connections are formed. Your conscious mind sits this process out, noticing all the good idea fragments your unconscious mind is creating.

It feels like falling asleep, yet your brain is working as hard as ever. Uncritical and unburdened, your thoughts tumble together in beautiful harmony. People find that time distorts because time no longer matters.

The Diffuse Mode gives you distance and perspective. From this height, what seemed like an impenetrable maze is a simple path. Solutions that eluded you while you were concentrating float freely before you.

Ever had inspiration strike while driving the car or in the shower? That’s your diffuse way of thinking at work. Your thoughts wrap themselves around the problem rather than trying to burrow straight through them.

As you drift out of Diffuse Mode, you may find your thinking has reset. Familiar objects seem different as old ideas are swept away. Your mind is fresh and clean – the only contents being whatever floated to the surface. Time flows once again as your breathing returns to normal.


Focused Mode

The Diffuse Mode is how the brain thinks creatively. But when the job needs doing, it shifts gears and engages the Focused Mode. This mode allows you to blot out distractions, buckle down and pursue your goal. If Diffuse Mode is your whole body relaxing, Focused Mode is becoming aware of how the top of your head feels, or your left shoulder, or your pelvis. Precise attention.

The Focused Mode is powerful. Your mind is fully locked onto the task at hand. Things run smoothly and efficiently, like a machine. It is here where you are critical, calculating, judging, assessing.

Focus is a powerful thing. Rather than assembling loose connections, your mind draws on tightly related concepts and memories. It is a state of control – interestingly, some even consider it the key to making yourself happier.

Now, you might think that the Focused Mode is an intense exertion. The truth is, it’s quite a relaxed process. Visualise an apple – its colour, the waxy sheen, the sweet and crunchy flesh. That’s focus, applied to fruit. Notice how effortless it is? Focus is something you direct, not push. It’s an easy, natural attention – the sort that’s easy to sustain over a long time.

If you realise you’re tensing or straining any muscles, you’re concentrating too hard. Take a deep breath. Dial it back a notch.

Using The Two Modes

So what does this mean for you, brain-user? Quite simply, if you know how and when to use each mode, you become immensely more effective.

The Diffuse Mode is vital during the generation phase of any endeavour – brainstorming thoughts, yes, but also writing, drawing, sculpting… anything where you are producing output. As I write this I am relaxed, my thoughts are loose and I’m simply letting the words flow.

The Focused Mode comes into play when you have your output. Whatever you created will be rough – embarrassingly so in some parts – and in eager need of the critical skills that focus brings. For me, the Focused Mode will be used later, after I’ve written a draft and slept on it. With it, I will clean up the wording, drop sentences, fix the grammar and decide it needs rewriting.

Both stages are important. What is vital to remember is that they can’t happen simultaneously. Your brain is either in Focused Mode or Diffuse Mode, never both. You can’t write and edit at the same time – not effectively, anyway.

You might be one of those enviable people who can switch between the two modes quickly and effortlessly. If so, I’m happy for you. For the rest of us mortals, the trick comes in knowing what supports each mode and what hurts it. Some people need silence to enter the Diffuse Mode, others like a bit of background music. Can you focus if your desk is messy or does your brain thrive on the chaos?

The connection between these thinking modes and creativity is clear. Diffuse thinking opens your mind up to the muses. It is when inspiration strikes, when you see something that you have never seen before. Focus brings this lightning bolt into reality, carving away the dead branches and testing it with ruthless detachment. Together, they harness the powers of Quantity and Quality. Together, you create magic.

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