What Sheldon Cooper Taught me About Problem Solving and Learning Effectively?

Nirmit Shah
Jun 18 · 7 min read
Source: Big Bang Theory

We all deal with problems every day.

Sometimes problem-solving is a breeze. The other times, more often than not, it’s frustrating.

Tell me, if you are familiar with this picture.

The eyes closed in concentration, the forehead creased with focused attention and your brain trying real hard to look for that breakthrough moment.

Source: Big Bang Theory

But as you might have often realized, we can't obliterate those mental blocks by simply focusing too hard.

So what can we do to make our problem-solving efforts less frustrating?

Is there a brain hack we can use to break down the mental blocks?

And since learning new things is also one form of problem-solving, can we use tricks to optimize our learning process as well?

The answers to all of these questions is a cheerful YES.

Before we can get to the how part of it, let’s see what Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang theory did when he faced a Physics problem he couldn’t solve.

When Sheldon Cooper solved a Physics problem at the Cheese Cake factory

Facing a mental block when you are trying to solve a problem can be frustrating as hell.

Probably, the most extreme form of this frustration must be manifesting in the offices of scientists and researchers.

Imagine if your entire job actually depended on problem-solving and you hit a mental block.

It can be devastating.

As was quite evident in an episode of Big Bang Theory called The Einstein Approximation.

Sheldon Cooper gets stuck in solving a Physics related problem at work. Days pass and he can’t get a breakthrough. This further leads to extreme sleep deprivation, mental frustration and craziness all around.

Source: Big Bang Theory

After days of being stuck, Sheldon decides to try something different.

He decides to completely distract himself from the problem at hand by staring work as a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory.

One day, while waiting the tables and carrying the dishes, he suddenly has an epiphany and gets his breakthrough.

He realizes that he has been looking at it all wrong and in a flash, he comes across the answer he has been looking for.

The moment when Sheldon gets his breakthrough.

Why did Sheldon have his Eureka moment in a cheesecake factory and not in his laboratory?

Isn’t being surrounded by books and models on Physics more likely to help in solving a Physics related problem?

The answer is a resounding NO.

And there is a fascinating explanation behind it.

It’s the same explanation which we can use in our day to day lives to solve problems, break mental blocks and learn new things effectively.

Focused and Diffused Modes of Thinking

Neuroscientists say that,

At any moment, our brain can be present in either one of the two different modes of thinking.

The Focused Mode or The Diffused Mode.

And understanding these modes is the key to understanding how we can effectively hack our brain.

I promise I will keep the technical stuff short. But, stay with me here because this is important.

To understand the difference between the modes of thinking, let me use the analogy of flashlights.

What happens when you take a flashlight and point it to a specific object?

It illuminates that particular object and helps us in seeing all the details of that object with clarity. This is similar to what happens in our brains during the focused mode of thinking.

We use the words and phrases like “in the zone”, “full concentration”, “laser-sharp focus” and others to denote this mode of thinking. It’s a state of mind where we are highly attentive.

On the other hand, what happens when you take a flashlight and point in the general direction of a room?

The flashlight illuminates the entire room showing you all the objects in the room and how they are located relative to each other.

In this case, probably your clarity and level of details are compromised but you manage to get a sense of overall view of the multiple objects in the room.

This is how the diffused mode of our brain works.

We use the words like “looking holistically”, “big picture view”, “a broader understanding” and so on to describe this mode of thinking. It’s a state of mind where we are relaxed and not focused on anything particular.

But you must be wondering

“Why does this matter?”

Even if it’s important, how is this going to practically help me solve problems and learn new things?

Remember how Sheldon Cooper decided to stop working on his Physics problem and start working at the Cheesecake factory?

That was him shifting from his focused mode to diffused mode of thinking.

And as it turns out, this shift is what matters when it comes to breaking mental blocks. Let’s see why.

The ultimate brain hack to break your mental blocks

Barbara Oakley is a neuroscientist who has been studying students solving math and science problems for years now.

In her book “A mind for numbers”, she says

“If you are trying to understand or figure out something new, your best bet is to turn off your precision-focused thinking and turn on your “big picture” diffuse mode, long enough to be able to latch on to a new, more fruitful approach.”

When we first approach a problem, we enter our focused mode of thinking. We are highly attentive, focusing our full concentration on the problem at hand.

Remember that flashlight we talked about?

It’s bright and beaming on one particular part of our brain. Because we feel that this is the underlying idea or concept which can help us solve the problem.

But what if the innovative solution we are seeking isn’t in that part of the brain?

What if we need to access other concepts in our brain and connect them together to come up with our solution?

That’s where our diffused mode of thinking comes into the picture.

By leveraging your diffused mode, you are holding the flashlight such that it illuminates the other ideas and concepts in your brain too.

Dr. Barbara Oakley further says that,

Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights.

Unlike the focused mode, the diffuse mode seems less affiliated with any one area of the brain — you can think of it as being “diffused” throughout the brain.

After your break, when you return to the problem at hand, you will often be surprised at how easily the solution pops into place. Even if the solution doesn’t appear, you will often be further along in your understanding.

Hence when you are stuck at a problem in the focused mode, the best thing to do is let your diffused mode take over.

But how do you do that?

Unlike Sheldon, we can’t all leave our jobs and start working at the cheesecake factory to activate our diffused mode.

Turns out, you don't need to. Because there are much simpler ways.

How to shift from focused mode to diffused mode of thinking?

For most people, shifting from focused to diffuse mode happens naturally if you distract yourself and then allow a little time to pass.

Dr. Oakley says,

The key is to do something else until your brain is consciously free of any thought of the problem.

She has also recommended some easy diffuse mode activators that can help us switch after a dedicated time of focused mode thinking.

  1. Go to the gym
  2. Play a sport like cricket, football or basketball
  3. Jog, walk, or swim
  4. Dance
  5. Go for a drive (or tag along for the ride)
  6. Draw or paint
  7. Take a bath or shower
  8. Listen to music, especially without words
  9. Meditate or pray
  10. Sleep (the ultimate diffuse mode!)

These diffuse mode activators not only help you in problem-solving but also accelerate your progress when it comes to learning new things.

You can think of them as little rewards for your brain after an intense focused mental workout.

So, the next time you are stuck in solving a tough problem or learning something new, try shutting off your focused mode and activate your diffused mode.

Who knows, you might have your Eureka Moment? Or in this case, your Bazinga Moment!

About Me

I am a Self Improvement Junkie on a mission to help students & young professionals grow and improve. Visit www.theveningproject.com to know more about the how & the what.

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Nirmit Shah

Written by

Self Improvement Junkie on a mission to help students & young professionals grow and improve. Visit www.theveningproject.com to know more about the how & what.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.