Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ScratchPad: Focused and Diffuse Modes- Harnessing Your Thinking for Improved Creativity and Learning (plus Update)

Update-  I've been a bit MIA around these parts the last month or two.   Taking Scott Dinsmore's "Start a Blog/Revive a Blog" Challenge  to see if I can jump start my intentionality again. For starters here is the first part of a three post series adapted from my final project in the fascinating (and FREE!) online course I took through Coursera called "Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects". A very worthwhile and useful exploration of the topic by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski.  I'd highly recommend it for anyone who likes to learn. If this is something you are interested in, there is a new class starting on October 3rd HERE. 

You know how many famous writers and creatives seem to go out for long walks on a fairly regular basis? Turns out they are taking advantage of the brain's use of diffuse thinking.  Use this to your advantage as well and make your story deeper and fuller!

So what exactly is happening when they are out for a walk that gets all these advantages?  Most of us think about periods of high level focus or concentration as the important bit in getting words down on paper or in learning something new. It is important. Nothing beats BIC (butt-in-chair) for getting closer to a finished piece of writing. Turns out, though, that the periods of inattention and lack of focus (when we make another cup of coffee, google random questions that happened to pop into our heads, doodle in a sketchpad, or wander around aimlessly...)  are just as important.  They give your brain the necessary space to making the new connections that will lead you to a better understanding of what is going on with your characters and story world, and ultimately to a better piece of writing. 

You can think of it like having two kinds of pinball machines in your head. When you are focused, the pins of your mind keep your attention tight and narrow, bouncing around in only one narrow defined area. When you are involved in activities that activate the diffuse mode of thinking, the pins are more widely spaced, allowing you to make connections between that amazing song you heard last week, the random radio interview with a French historian playing as you drive to the grocery , and a Pick Up Sticks game you played as a kid.  These broader context connections will add layers and depth to your writing.

When you do the first focused round of writing (or learning), the brain lays down tracks for the new material, but it often doesn’t make sense of it in a meaningful way until it  begins to make connections with other things in your mind and memory. You also need time for the new tracks to solidify.  Writing a little every day gives your brain that time and makes a tighter, better "wall" for you to sit on. Then when you step away for those periods of diffuse thinking, you allow time for the subconscious brain to step away from the new material, turn it over, and then come to new conclusions and connections about it. It cements things and firms them up.  Binge writing  on the other hand (of which I am VERY guilty) gives you a potentially more crumbly wall without all those connections and hardened cement framework.

So what does all this new research actually mean in getting better writing done?
1. Plan focused times to sit down and do your writing. Set a timer and actually be there at the 
      page for that period of time.
2.  When the timer goes, step away and do something completely different for a bit--listen to 
      music, draw, go for  a walk, … It should feel like a reward.
3. Then come back and focus for another stint!
4. Follow it up with reward--diffuse mode thinking take two.
5. Show up again tomorrow.  (This is the tough one for me.)

The length of time you set the timer for will be individual and dependent on the day. Maybe the writing is difficult and you only feel up to committing to a Flylady Fifteen (You can do anything for fifteen minutes!) rather than a Pomodoro Twenty-Five  or an Amy Alkon Sixty (from her interview in the above mentioned MOOC). Experiment. Find the amount of time that is optimal for you.

If you give this a try, let me know how it works for you! Best of luck in your writing and your learning.