month, many Americans will take time off from work to go on vacation,
catch up on household projects and simply be with family and friends.
And many of us will feel guilty for doing so. We will worry about all of
the emails piling up at work, and in many cases continue to
compulsively check email during our precious time off.
beware the false break. Make sure you have a real one. The summer
vacation is more than a quaint tradition. Along with family time,
mealtime and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most
of our beautiful brains.
Every day we’re assaulted
with facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber, coming from all
directions. According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the
equivalent of about 174 newspapers’ worth of information, five times as
much as we did in 1986. As the world’s 21,274 television stations
produce some 85,000 hours of original programming every day (by 2003
figures), we watch an average of five hours of television per day. For
every hour of YouTube video you watch, there are 5,999 hours of new
video just posted!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed,
there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is
limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved.
Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive
network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because
they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits
within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re
actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted;
neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The
task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the
daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw
in the brain: when one is active the other is not.
two-part attentional system is one of the crowning achievements of the
human brain, and the focus it enables allowed us to harness fire, build
the pyramids, discover penicillin and decode the entire human genome.
Those projects required some plain old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness.
the insight that led to them probably came from the daydreaming mode.
This brain state, marked by the flow of connections among disparate
ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest
creativity and insight, when we’re able to solve problems that
previously seemed unsolvable. You might be going for a walk or grocery
shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and
suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you
suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections
among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.
third component of the attentional system, the attentional filter,
helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and
what we can safely ignore. This undoubtedly evolved to alert us to
predators and other dangerous situations. The constant flow of
information from Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, text messages and
the like engages that system, and we find ourselves not sustaining
attention on any one thing for very long — the curse of the information
collaborator Vinod Menon, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford, and I
showed that the switch between daydreaming and attention is controlled
in a part of the brain called the insula, an important structure about
an inch or so beneath the surface of the top of your skull. Switching
between two external objects involves the temporal-parietal junction. If
the relationship between the central executive system and the
mind-wandering system is like a seesaw, then the insula — the
attentional switch — is like an adult holding one side down so that the
other stays up in the air. The efficacy of this switch varies from
person to person, in some functioning smoothly, in others rather rusty.
But switch it does, and if it is called upon to switch too often, we
feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were seesawing too rapidly.
status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get
from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important
things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you
left your passport or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just
had an argument with.
If you want to be more
productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates
that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social
networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant
interruptions to your day.
too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is
sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps
thinking about it, distracting you from what you’re doing. What might
be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to
leave your email program off than to hear that constant ping and know
that you’re ignoring messages.
creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and
immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to
50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or
listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a
neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re
Daydreaming leads to creativity, and
creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to
mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment.
Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving
attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of
This radical idea — that problem
solving might take some time and doesn’t always have to be accomplished
immediately — could have profound effects on decision making and even on
our economy. Consider this: By some estimates, preventable medical
error is the third leading cause of death in the United States,
accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. You want your
diagnostician to give the right answer, not always the quickest one.
Zoning out is not always bad. You don’t want your airline pilot or air
traffic controller to do it while they’re on the job, but you do want
them to have opportunities to reset — this is why air traffic control
and other high-attention jobs typically require frequent breaks. Several
studies have shown that people who work overtime reach a point of
diminishing returns.
Taking breaks is biologically
restorative. Naps are even better. In several studies, a nap of even 10
minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness
and fatigue. If we can train ourselves to take regular vacations — true
vacations without work — and to set aside time for naps and
contemplation, we will be in a more powerful position to start solving
some of the world’s big problems. And to be happier and well rested
while we’re doing it.