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
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.
…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.