Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime

By Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, 10/15/13

Mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.

[Michael’s note: How might these principles apply not just to improving our performance as teachers but also to helping our students achieve more balance in their academic lives?]

Throughout history people have intuited that… devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy. What if the brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas? “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times….

Even when we are relaxing, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather…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 achieve our highest levels of performance….

In a recent thought-provoking review of research,… Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors argue that…downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned…and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself. While mind-wandering we replay conversations we had earlier that day, rewriting our verbal blunders as a way of learning to avoid them in the future. We craft fictional dialogue to practice standing up to someone who intimidates us or to reap the satisfaction of an imaginary harangue against someone who wronged us. We shuffle through all those neglected mental post-it notes listing half-finished projects and we mull over the aspects of our lives with which we are most dissatisfied, searching for solutions…. We subject ourselves to a kind of performance review….

Some studies have demonstrated that the mind obliquely solves tough problems while daydreaming—an experience many people have had while taking a shower. Epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime….

During downtime,…the brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorizing the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue. Most of us have observed how, after a good night’s sleep, the vocab words we struggled to remember the previous day suddenly leap into our minds or that technically challenging piano song is much easier to play. Dozens of studies have confirmed that memory depends on sleep….

That learning and memory depend on both sleep and waking rest may partially explain why some of the most exceptional artists and athletes among us fall into a daily routine of intense practice punctuated by breaks and followed by a lengthy period of recuperation. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of The Florida State University has spent more than 30 years studying how people achieve the highest levels of expertise. Based on his own work and a thorough review of the relevant research, Ericsson concludes that most people can engage in deliberate practice—which means pushing oneself beyond current limits—for only an hour without rest; that extremely talented people in many different disciplines—music, sports, writing—rarely practice more than four hours each day on average; and that many experts prefer to begin training early in the morning when mental and physical energy is readily available. “Unless the daily levels of practice are restricted, such that subsequent rest and nighttime sleep allow the individuals to restore their equilibrium,” Ericsson wrote, “individuals often encounter overtraining injuries and, eventually, incapacitating ‘burnout.’”

These principles are derived from the rituals of the exceptional, but they are useful for anyone in any profession.…

Beyond renewing one’s powers of concentration, downtime can in fact bulk up the muscle of attention—something that scientists have observed repeatedly in studies on meditation…. Although meditation is not equivalent to zoning out or daydreaming, many styles challenge people to sit in a quiet space, close their eyes and turn their attention away from the outside world toward their own minds. Mindfulness meditation, for example, generally refers to a sustained focus on one’s thoughts, emotions and sensations in the present moment. For many people, mindfulness is about paying close attention to whatever the mind does on its own, as opposed to directing one’s mind to accomplish this or that….

Michael Taft [editor of Being Human, a website on meditation, psychology, and technology] advocates deliberate mental breaks during “all the in-between moments” in an average day—a subway ride, lunch, a walk. He stresses, though, that there’s a big difference between admiring the idea of more downtime and committing to it in practice. “Getting out into nature on the weekends, meditating, putting away our computers now and then—a lot of it is stuff we already know we should probably do,” he says. “But we have to be a lot more diligent about it. Because it really does matter.”

Ferris Jabr is a freelance science journalist and a contributing writer to Scientific American.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/

See also in ClassWise: “Learning That Lasts”

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