Cerebral Congestion: Why Giving Your Brain a Break Improves Productivityby Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD | February 16, 2018
Eureka moment often strikes when a person is taking a break, relaxing, lying down, or walking. Nevertheless, the importance of recess or downtime remains unappreciated. But does being busy truly mean being productive? What about psychological congestion? Most people, earlier or later in life, have felt the burnout effect on their work, especially when their job demands high mental involvement.
Modern research seems to support the idea that our brain needs to take frequent breaks, similar to our muscles requirements during intensive physical activity. Even short periods of downtime may improve our capabilities to comprehend, think, imagine, be creative, and come up with new ideas. It seems that modern science has started to understand why Archimedes had his Eureka moment while taking a bath.
For centuries, the idea that doing nothing has something to do with creativity or better cognition was discarded as absurd. Research in the area was boosted with the invention of electroencephalography (EEG) in the early 20th century. EEG studies revealed high activity in the brain even at rest. However, these signals were rejected, considered at best to be those being created to support basic functionalities of life like breathing, and at worst, merely random noise.
The introduction of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the mid-1990s was a revolutionary moment in neurophysiology. Now investigators could study the effect of brain activity on the profusion of blood to specific brain areas. Researchers found that the brain is continually consuming almost 20% of the body’s energy, and this demand rises only slightly when a person is focusing on a specific task. Performing some intellectual tasks were found to be associated with higher perfusion of blood into specific brain areas, and during downtime, some other parts of the brain start to get activated. Various brain centers that became active during daydreaming were named the default mode network (DMN). Researchers have further concluded that the DMN is critical for the resting state of our brain.
Now, science has realized that being at rest does not necessarily mean being idle. When a person is resting, the brain wanders and engages in default mode (DM), something that is suppressed when working or focusing on something. DM has an essential role in mental development: switching to DM helps a person to recall memories, strengthen experiences, ponder the future, contemplate social behavior, and much more. Being too busy with various tasks or being continually distracted may deprive us of constructive internal reflection. During rest periods, the brain switches to DM and thus improves its creative skills and other abilities. These moments of downtime are the periods when we form a better understanding of self, engaging in self-dialogue. These idle moments give us an opportunity to dive deep into our experiences, make conclusions, and plan for the future.
It seems that idle time is, in actual fact, a phase of memory consolidation, something that has been proven to be important in various experiments in both humans and animal models. For example, in one trial, food items were put in a maze and specific electric patterns were recorded from the mouses’ brains while the animals were looking for these food items. Similar signals were also recorded while the mice were having a rest, thus indicating that they were just consolidating the memory. These electric patterns during the rest periods are known as sharp wave ripples. Furthermore, the researchers found that if these sharp wave ripples were distorted by another electrical signal, the mice had a problem remembering the items or recalling information.
A similar memory consolidation phenomenon that occurs during downtime has been recorded in humans. In one experiment on human subjects with electrodes implanted for controlling epilepsy, researchers noticed the sharp wave ripples during downtime when the participants were shown various images. Researchers found that the ability to recall information was directly proportional to the strength of the sharp wave ripples created in the brain while having a rest, thus confirming a role in thought or memory consolidation role for mental downtime.
This phenomenon is very familiar to many people who are trying to learn new skills. Most people note sudden improvements in learning after a period of good rest. Thus, if a person is learning to play piano, he or she may notice swift progress after a rest period. In fact, it seems that the brain takes advantage of every small moment it gets to take a break by switching to DM.
These findings have several practical implications. They indicate the need to take regular breaks at work to maintain the optimal level of functionality. They tell us that working nine to five may not be the most productive way of achieving our professional goals. People would be more creative, productive, and energetic by taking more frequent breaks and vacations.
The human brain is continually depleted of its resources if it does not get enough rest. There are indications that even short naps during the day may have an excellent replenishing effect on our mental resources. Multiple studies have established the positive impact of daytime naps or “power naps”. However, one must also understand the importance of sleep inertia, meaning that longer naps would require more extended periods of recovery to reach optimal performance.
In a way, these studies further confirm the importance of practicing mindfulness. They explain how meditation can improve various mental processes. Multiple studies have proven the value of meditation for psychological revival. Studies have indicated that regular meditation may even increase the volume of different regions of the brain that are important for optimal mental abilities. Some experiments have shown that practicing mindfulness even for a week may enhance memory and concentration. One could say that meditation is a low-tech gym for the brain.
Working hard and being productive are not the same thing. It is essential that we understand the importance of downtime. These breaks when we do nothing are critical for our psychological revival and achieving those elusive Eureka moments. Take a break!
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Girardeau, G., Benchenane, K., Wiener, S. I., Buzsáki, G., & Zugaro, M. B. (2009). Selective suppression of hippocampal ripples impairs spatial memory. Nature Neuroscience, 12(10), 1222. doi:10.1038/nn.2384
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