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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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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
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 engagement.
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.
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.
Daniel J. Levitin is the
director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill
University and the author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in
the Age of Information Overload.”