Why Your Brain Needs a Break

Photo Credit: David Castillo Dominici / freedigitalphotos.net

Photo Credit: David Castillo Dominici / freedigitalphotos.net

A long time ago, I wrote about the value of doing nothing. Although it was written for parents about their children, it is equally pertinent for adults to get “down time” as well. Down time is important for a number of reasons, especially when we are learning, being creative, and consolidating our memories.

The Brain Needs a Break

In an era where time is speeding up and every moment of our lives is filled with activity, it has never been more important to take a moment to do nothing. Here’s why…

“Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind. What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.” – Scientific American

Related research:

Daydreaming is Productive

What was even more interesting is what we achieve with daydreaming. It is often during those moments of mind wandering that we solve tough problems – when we’re driving on the road, taking a shower, or doing any semi-automatic activity that does not require the brain’s full attention.

Is it any surprise then that the daydreaming mode is especially common among creative people? A lot of epiphanies are often the result of subconscious mental activity while doing “nothing”.

There is an interesting study from Science in 2006 supporting this:

80 University of Amsterdam students were asked to pick the best car from a set of four. Unbeknownst to the students, the researchers had previously ranked based on size, mileage, maneuverability and other features. Half the participants got four minutes to deliberate after reviewing the specs; the researchers prevented the other 40 from pondering their choices by distracting them with anagrams. Yet the latter group made far better decisions. – Scientific American

It should be noted that the distracting task has to be relatively simple – such as solving an anagram or engaging in a routine activity that does not necessitate much deliberate concentration, like brushing one’s teeth or washing dishes. It is theorised that the right kind of distraction allows the subconscious mind “to integrate more information from a wide range of brain regions in more complex ways than when the brain is consciously working through a problem”.

Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Critically, the context that improved performance after the incubation period was associated with higher levels of mind wandering but not with a greater number of explicitly directed thoughts about the UUT. These data suggest that engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving. – Psychological Science, 2012.

So perhaps the idea is not to do nothing but to do something “mindless”. Now I know why all my best ideas come to me when I’m driving…

Study Breaks Boost Learning

More relevant to students learning new material is the recent article from HuffPost on how study breaks boost learning. Sometimes, when we’re trying to master new material, a break may be more helpful than to continue slogging away.

Image source: HuffPost – fMRI shows how mental rest and reflection of past learning activities can boost future learning.

…researchers asked 35 adult study participants to memorize pairs of photos in two separate series. In between each series, the participants were given some time to rest and think about anything they wanted. Participants who used the time to reflect on the first series of photos, according to brain scans taken during the break, then outperformed themselves on the subsequent series. This was especially true in cases where minor details of information overlapped between the two tasks.

In other words, when we’re daydreaming, the parts of the brain that are responsible for consolidation of memories and for information retrieval are highly active. This is not only important in the learning process, it also plays a significant role in perspective taking, imagination, creativity, future planning, reflection, and morality.

In a nutshell, we just need more time to let our minds wander.

What Happens When Your Brain Doesn’t Sleep…

Optimal brain function requires optimal brain health and optimal brain health requires adequate sleeping hours.

It’s been said over and over how important it is to get enough sleep:

And yet, sleep is the first thing we sacrifice when we want more time to study for that exam, to finish that assignment, to complete that business proposal, or to finalise the year-end budgets. If something needs doing, sleep is the first thing to go out the door.

But if we want to push past our limits and extend our performance, we must look after our brains and make sure it gets all the necessary requirements to function optimally. One critical requirement that our brains must have is to get enough sleep.

I love the following infographic from BrainMic because it gives a terrific run down of what happens to our brains when we don’t get enough sleep…

Image Source: BrainMic

It’s plain and simple – if you want to reach your full potential, you need to sleep.

Related:

Debunking the Myth About the Creative Process

MozartThere is a very interesting article I read recently called “The Creativity Myth” – Creativity is not what we think it is. I heartily encourage you to read the article in its entirety but if you don’t have the time, here’s the gist of it (with some extrapolation of  my own)…

We have a romantic idea about genius and creativity like it is some magical power only certain people wield. Myths about geniuses like Mozart perpetuate that idea because we have been led to believe that his musical masterpieces come to him in a flash of inspiration. He would hear the entire composition in his head – just like that – and all he would have to do is write it down. We cling to this idea because it gives us an excuse for not attempting to emulate his genius – what would be the point when he was so far beyond anything we could ever hope to achieve?

Such myths must be debunked and exposed for the lie that it is because it works against the nature of the true creative spirit – the one where you actually have to put in the work before reaping the results. And yes, even Mozart had to work for his genius. There is no denying that Mozart was “exceptionally talented, but he did not write by magic. He sketched his compositions, revised them, and sometimes got stuck. He could not work without a piano or harpsichord. He would set work aside and return to it later. He considered theory and craft while writing, and he thought a lot about rhythm, melody, and harmony. Even though his talent and a lifetime of practice made him fast and fluent, his work was exactly that: work. Masterpieces did not come to him complete in uninterrupted streams of imagination, nor without an instrument, nor did he write them down whole and unchanged.”

In Psychology Today, there is a terrific explanation on how we fall prey to the Mozart Myth. We may work on a project with numerous ideas that we struggle with for months without really getting anywhere and then, in a stroke of insight, we discover a way to tie everything together and our masterpiece is complete. When asked about this amazing masterpiece that we have created, we may only recall the “aha!” moment when everything fell into place, but not the endless nights of struggling with the individual ideas.

The most powerful message we can take away from this about how the creative process works is best summed up in a quote I once stumbled upon:

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” – Somerset Maugham

Or as Jack London put it so aptly:

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

You can hear more about the Creative Myth from David Burkus:

You can also read more about it here: