Your Brain on Idle

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Hear from guest blogger, Robb Best, of Best Mindframe about the brain:

Idleness is the Devil’s workshop, or so the saying goes. Blame it on our Puritan origins if you like, but Americans take fewer vacation days than nearly anyone else. And worldwide, when it comes to how much paid time off a company must give its employees, the United States comes in dead last, at zero days. Uncle Sam, it seems, got the Puritan memo: downtime is laziness.

That’s a problem, says Heather Rogers in her Experience Life article, “The Upside of Downtime.”

Rogers cites Victoria Sweet, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Sweet’s new book, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, tells the story of her medical residency, where she was under enormous pressure to perform, and where, in response to that pressure, she began to take frequent smoke breaks.

This could’ve been disastrous for her health, except for one detail: Sweet didn’t smoke.

Instead, she used these little chunks of free time simply to decompress, gather her thoughts, and contemplate the patients she’d just seen.

What Sweet probably didn’t realize then was that unstructured free time activates the brain’s “default mode network.” This is when the insula, the switch that toggles between active focus and daydreaming, flips over into daydream mode, producing a mental state neuroscientists sometimes call incubation.

Incubation is the byproduct of idleness, and it’s associated with driving more oxygen and blood to the brain. This in turn produces clearer thinking, less fatigue, and more resiliency—all pretty important for a medical resident working 16-hour days. Incubation is at the heart of freeform subconscious associations, commonly known as creativity. This is believed to be the birthplace of those aha moments.

Mark Twain already understood this concept over a hundred years ago when he said, “I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry, you’ve only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time—quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on.” (It should be noted that Twain’s version of the non-smoking break actually involved chain-smoking cigars, but this was long before people began to raise concerns about big tobacco.)

Taking five-minute breaks throughout your day stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing heart rate, creating better digestion, and producing overall better moods.

Still, with all that said, a joint study between psychologists from the University of Virginia and Harvard found that 83% of subjects spent zero time “thinking or relaxing”, but 95% of the same group reported regularly pursuing some kind of leisure activity.

We are not comfortable with the idea of idle time. We prefer to be doing something, even when relaxing is the goal. Checking e-mail, perusing Facebook, watching TV, or even listening to music does not jumpstart that incubation state. True idle time involves a quiet coming together of just you and your thoughts.

So maybe idleness is not the Devil’s workshop after all. Maybe it’s more akin to exploring the heavens of the subconscious brain, and getting in a little healthy R&R at the same time.

Based on current research, it makes perfect sense to let your thought tank fill up from time to time. It will, however, probably require reframing some of your thinking. For instance, consider the merits of Sweet’s non-smoking break. Then, perhaps, consider turning off this glowing screen, and indulging in a long cool draw off a couple of random thoughts.