Why Breaks are Crucial for Our Brains
A few weeks ago we discussed why it is so difficult for us to stay focused and outlined that cognitive underload or overload might be reasons for it, or even the default mode of our brain, which seems to be mind-wandering. However, one reason for it might also be that we are overdoing things. A lot of research suggests that the brain seems to need downtime – downtime during which it is far from resting.
When we are relaxing or daydreaming, even when we sleep, the brain stays busy, as studies with electroencephalograms (EEG) or functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) show. It consolidates our memory, it makes connections between things we learned (known as creativity), and restores and replenishes itself. We reported on the so-called default mode network (DMN) in an earlier post – a network of neurons in the brain that is highly active when we are trying to rest our brain. And it seems that there are more resting state networks. These can be activated for the blink of an eye, literally: a study by Tamami Nakano and colleagues from Osaka University had study participants watch film clips while recording their brain activity. The DMN was activated when participants blinked, while the attention network was deactivated. In this sense mind-wandering might not be such a bad thing as often suspected. In fact it is likely to be something that helps us learn.
Moreover, researcher Anders Ericsson has shown that we can challenge our brain only for a limited number of hours. Engaging in deliberate practice – the act of rehearsing certain skill chunks over and over again, with increasing levels of difficulty and often coupled with direct feedback – only seems to be possible for an hour in a row. And even professional athletes, musicians, or writers hardly ever actively work for more than four hours a day, otherwise they overtrain or burn out. Moreover, studies suggest that single days off during the work week lead to better performance and more engagement. Companies like Google or Boston Consulting Group have tried this out successfully.
Thus, breaks are crucial for our brain. But what can we do to really give our brain the break it needs? In an earlier post, for example, we reported that our natural sleep cycle usually involves several shorter periods of sleep, and that naps during daytime are part of it. It has even been shown that short naps improve cognitive performance. It seems that naps of 10 minutes seem to be most efficient, as a study by Amber Brooks and Leon Lack of Flinders University in Australia found. Generally, as we learned in a recent post, meditation, yoga, and spending time out in nature are good ways of resting our brains (so that they can stay active and consolidate). Meditation in particular has been shown to improve focus, memory, and mental health. We reported on this in earlier posts. And we know that already ten minutes a day can make a real difference.
Brooks, A. & Lack, L. (2006). A Brief Afternoon Nap Following Nocturnal Sleep Restriction: Which Nap Duration is Most Recuperative? Sleep, 29(6), 831-840.
Ericsson, A. K. (2006). The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance. In: K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, & R. R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook for Expertise and Expert Performance, pp. 683-704. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nakano, T., Kato, M., Morito, Y., Itoi, S., & Kitazawa, S. (2013). Blink-related momentary activation of the default mode network while viewing videos. PNAS, 110(2), 702-706.
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