February When we were in junior high school, my friend Rich and I made a map of the school lunch tables according to popularity.
The glare of my computer screen appears to suddenly intensify.
My eyes trace the contour of the same sentence two or three times, yet I fail to extract its meaning. Even if I began the day undaunted, getting through my ever growing list of stories to write and edit, e-mails to send and respond to, and documents to read now seems as futile as scaling a mountain that continuously thrusts new stone skyward.
There is so much more to do—so much work I genuinely enjoy—but my brain is telling me to stop.
It needs some downtime. Freelance writer and meditation teacher Michael Taft has experienced his own version of cerebral congestion. Inwhile finalizing plans to move from Los Angeles to San Francisco, he decided to take an especially long recess from work and the usual frenzy of life.
After selling his home and packing all his belongings in storage, he traveled to the small rural community of Barre, Mass.
He spent most of his time meditating, practicing yoga and walking through fields and along trails in surrounding farmland and woods, where he encountered rafters of turkeys leaping from branches, and once spotted an otter gamboling in a swamp.
Gradually, his mind seemed to sort through a backlog of unprocessed data and to empty itself of accumulated concerns. A LexisNexis survey of 1, white collar workers in the U. In contrast to the European Union, which mandates 20 days of paid vacation, the U.
In the Netherlands 26 days of vacation in a given year is typical. Yet a survey by Harris Interactive found that, at the end ofAmericans had an average of nine unused vacation days.
And in several surveys Americans have admited that they obsessively check and respond to e-mails from their colleagues or feel obliged to get some work done in between kayaking around the coast of Kauai and learning to pronounce humuhumunukunukuapua'a.
To summarize, Americans and their brains are preoccupied with work much of the time.
Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical 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?
Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: 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. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future.
The rest is history For much of the 20th century many scientists regarded the idea that the brain might be productive during downtime as ludicrous. German neurologist Hans Berger disagreed. Although his peers acknowledged that some parts of the the brain and spinal cord must work nonstop to regulate the lungs and heart, they assumed that when someone was not focusing on a specific mental task, the brain was largely offline; any activity picked up by an electroencephalogram or other device during rest was mostly random noise.
At first, the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI in the early s only strengthened this view of the brain as an exquisitely frugal organ switching on and off its many parts as needed.
By tracing blood flow through the brain, fMRI clearly showed that different neural circuits became especially active during different mental tasks, summoning extra blood full of oxygen and glucose to use as energy.
By the mid s, however, Marcus Raichle of Washington University in Saint Louis and his colleagues had demonstrated that the human brain is in fact a gluttonconstantly demanding 20 percent of all the energy the body produces and requiring only 5 to 10 percent more energy than usual when someone solves calculus problems or reads a book.
Raichle also noticed that a particular set of scattered brain regions consistently became less active when someone concentrated on a mental challenge, but began to fire in synchrony when someone was simply lying supine in an fMRI scanner, letting their thoughts wander.
Likewise, Bharat Biswalnow at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, documented the same kind of coordinated communication between disparate brain regions in people who were resting. Many researchers were dubious, but further studies by other scientists confirmed that the findings were not a fluke.
Eventually this mysterious and complex circuit that stirred to life when people were daydreaming became known as the default mode network DMN. In the last five years researchers discovered that the DMN is but one of at least five different resting-state networks —circuits for vision, hearing, movement, attention and memory.
But the DMN remains the best studied and perhaps the most important among them. In a recent thought-provoking review of research on the default mode network, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors argue that when we are resting the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics—processes that depend on the DMN.
Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives 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.Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.
– Henry Kaiser (American industrialist) Having good, strong problem solving skills can make a huge difference to your career.
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