Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D
Jay Kumar, Ph.D.
Your brain craves more downtime! We all know the benefits of what a relaxing summer vacation can do to recharge our batteries. But, what if getting in more regular afternoon naps, a quick walk around the block, playing Frisbee with a friend, or a midday meditation can also help you to increase attention, boost creativity, and optimize job performance?
As we explored in our previous blogs, our modern-day overdependence on technology and the constant need to be online has resulted in our being disconnected in an over-connected world. So what's to be done to combat all the "cerebral congestion" we accumulate on a daily basis? As we explore here, whether you're an artist or athlete, secretary or scientist, experiencing more downtime increases productivity and focus.
The recently popular film Inside Out wonderfully underscores the value of creativity and play. The movie provides an inside glimpse into the psyche of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, and all the various thoughts and competing emotions existing as characters in her mind as she navigates through life. Riley's imaginations and dreams are created in special places in her mental terrain, appropriately called "Imagination Land" and "Dream Production." Just like Riley, when we daydream, meditate, play, dance, paint or doodle, the more our brain employs various unconscious means of cognitive processing. The result -- the stronger our ability to solve problems, create new patterns of thought and advance new ideas into the world.
Let's face it, our society encourages and even rewards us for being in "busy-brain" mode. When our brains are persistently stimulated and bombarded with information, the long-term results are hazardous to our overall health and well-being. While we often equate busy-ness with productivity and idleness with laziness, in reality creating momentary mental breaks throughout our day, in the long run, boosts our concentration and creativity. And by mental breaks, we don't mean spending your downtime doing a quick check of emails or posting on Facebook!
No one would argue the profound benefits of a good night's rest. It is after all that our brain takes a downtime every night when we go to sleep. And deep sleep in particular, where no dreams occur and no memory of specific states is recalled, demonstrates the importance of switching away from full wakefulness for the health of any organism. Science is now coming to the realization of what art has always advanced: The human brain requires not just sleep, but also an intuitive nature and other non-linear ways to process ideas and concepts.
So how does drifting off enhance our drive? The key resides in a system of the brain known as the "Default Mode Network" (DMN), a circuitry in the brain that activates when we switch into non-rational modes of thought. Research at the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute documents in a published paper how resting the brain isn't the same as idleness. In fact, when we take unstructured breaks, our brains are accomplishing an important task -- processing and synthesizing all the sensory data and information they take in, shaping them into recognizable patterns and structured concepts. When we provide our brain with much needed downtime, it allows us to make sense and create a better picture of what we've just learned. Basically, downtime allows us to connect the dots!
Of course, a common misconception in both the classroom and the work place is that downtime yields a lack of productivity. As university professors at Chapman University, we witness first-hand the tremendous benefits of creating downtime in the classroom. In all of our university courses, we carve out time at the start of every class for our students to enjoy 10 minutes of silent reflection and awareness. The students love it! Not only that, but students report feeling more engaged and focused in class and throughout the day. So great have these benefits been, a majority of our students continue doing these "mini-meditations" even after graduation.
Taking regular breaks when studying or working also appear to enhance memory. In another experiment conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, when rats were introduced to a foreign environment, new patterns of activity occurred in their brain as they were processing the unfamiliar locale. The researchers observed that when rats benefitted from a break after their wanderings, their brains processed the patterns in such a way that enhanced the memory of the experience. This discovery, sometimes referred to as awake replay, appears to be modeled similarly in the human brain.
A revolutionary realm of science, quantum theory, provides a philosophical framework and novel approach, in which the importance of downtime can perhaps be better understood: Most of the potentialities in the quantum world remain unknown. Only a small number manifest upon focused observation. The vast potential of the quantum world provides a rich background where future choices become manifest. It is, therefore, when we access that background, that true creativity can spring forward. If we limit ourselves to what is known and what we are already aware of, we will not only be missing vast creativity but even worse, we will not have many choices to choose from. Therefore, in a paradoxical way, the unknown gives us unlimited free will to make choices.
This principle from quantum theory manifests when we daydream and let our minds meander. They can even lead to that long-sought-after "Eureka" moment. History records that some of the greatest scientific discoveries and recognized works of art, music and literature were a result of individual's diving into the mind's "quantum field of potentiality." The Greek philosopher and mathematician, Archimedes, discovered the principles of matter displacement while mindlessly observing the water level rise when sitting in his bath. Einstein's famous Theory of Relativity was born out of recurring daydreams of running alongside a particle of light to the edge of the universe. The Russian scientist Mendelev envisioned the entire complex organization of the Periodic Table of elements in a dream. Organic chemist August Kekulé dreamt the Benzene molecule as snakes forming a hexagonal shape. Even the world's celebrated writers and musicians daydreamed their works into creation from Paul McCartney's famous melody "Yesterday" to the treasured novels of the Brontë sisters.
As Albert Einstein declared, "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
As our society's dependence on devices and living in a "24/7" world is on the rise, it's all the more reason we understand the powerful benefits of taking time to slow down and enjoy the mind's gift of going astray. Think of it like this -- creating more downtime will up your game! (Click to Tweet)
Menas C. Kafatos, is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, at Chapman University. He is a quantum physicist, cosmologist, and climate change researcher and works extensively on consciousness. He holds seminars and workshops for individuals and corporations on the natural laws that apply everywhere for well-being and success. His doctoral thesis advisor was the renowned M.I.T. professor Philip Morrison who studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer. He has authored 300+ articles, is author or editor of 15 books, including "The Conscious Universe" (Springer) with Robert Nadeau, and is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, "The Creative Cosmos" (Harmony). You can learn more at http://www.menaskafatos.com and follow him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/menas.kafatos Twitter:@mckafatos and LinkedIn: Menas Kafatos
Jay Kumar holds a Ph.D. in cognitive science and religious studies and is the co-founder of the Applied Brain Science Research Institute (ABSRI). He expertly counsels organizations and businesses on harnessing the art and science of happiness for both short- and long-term success. In addition to consulting businesses and individuals, he stays at the forefront of brain research as a university professor. His e-book Five Secrets to Achieving Authentic Health Happiness is available on Amazon.com. You can learn more at www.DrJayKumar.com and follow him on Twitter @docjaykumar