A friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine, tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.
The situation is not that different for most kids these days, with high expectations in the classroom, fewer opportunities to unwind with recess and the arts, busy social calendars, and a seemingly limitless supply of extracurricular activities—like circus arts and robotics—that weren’t available to previous generations. That’s unfortunate, because research shows that time off-task is important for proper brain function and health.
The idea that the brain might be productively engaged during downtime has been slow in coming. Because of the brain’s massive energy consumption—using as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake while on-task—most scientists expected that the organ would default to a frugal, energy-saving mode when given the chance.
Recently, however, brain researchers have discovered sets of scattered brain regions that fire in a synchronized way when people switch to a state of mental rest, such as daydreaming. These “resting-state networks” help us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.
The best understood of these networks is the Default Mode Network, or DMN. It’s the part of the brain that chatters on continuously when we’re off-task—ruminating on a conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, for example, or flipping through our mental to-do list, or nagging us about how we’ve treated a friend.
Many of us are culturally conditioned to think of time off-task as “wasted” and a sign of inefficiency or laziness. But teachers and learners can benefit from recognizing how downtime can help. In addition to giving the brain an opportunity to make sense of what it has just learned, shifting off-task can help learners refresh their minds when frustrated so they can return to a problem and focus better.
The Productive Faces of Idleness
Sleep is the quintessential form of downtime for the brain. All animals sleep in some form, and even plants and microorganisms often have dormant or inactive states. Sleep has been shown in numerous studies to play a major role in memory formation and consolidation.
Recent studies have shown that when the human brain flips to idle mode, the neurons that work so hard when we’re on-task settle down and the surrounding glial cells increase their activity dramatically, cleaning up the waste products accumulated by the neurons and moving them out via the body’s lymphatic system. Researchers believe that the restorative effects of sleep are due to this cleansing mechanism. Napping for 10-30 minutes has been demonstrated to increase alertness and improve performance.
Teachers might consider reminding parents of the importance of adequate sleep for learning in the classroom – especially if learners are visibly sleepy or have noticeable difficulty focusing in class. As many as 30% of K-12 learners don’t get enough sleep at night.
AWAKE, DOING NOTHING
Idleness is often considered a vice, but there’s growing evidence that there are benefits to “doing nothing.” Electrical activity in the brain that appears to solidify certain kinds of memories is more frequent during downtime—as when lying in the dark at bedtime—than it is during sleep.
Meditation is another way of giving the brain a break from work without fully surrendering consciousness. Research has shown that meditation can refresh our ability to concentrate, help us attend to tasks more efficiently, and strengthen connections between regions of the DMN.
Experienced meditators typically perform better than non-meditators on difficult attention tests, and may be able to toggle more easily between the DMN and those brain networks that we use when we’re actively on task.
There’s evidence as well that the brain benefits from going offline for even the briefest moments—as when we blink. Every time we blink, our DMN fires up and our conscious networks take respite for a moment, giving the conscious mind a bit of relief.
It’s not uncommon to experience a sudden flash of insight while engaged in mundane activities like doing a crossword puzzle or cleaning the house. There’s a famous anecdote about Archimedes, a prominent scientist in classical Greece, solving a problem in just this way.
Archimedes needed to determine whether the king’s new crown was made entirely of the gold supplied to the goldsmith, or whether inferior metals like silver had been mixed in—and he had to do it without damaging the crown. He puzzled over how to solve the problem, without luck. Then, as he stepped into a bathtub one day and saw the water level rise, he realized in an instant that he could use the water’s buoyancy to measure the density of the crown against a solid gold reference sample. He conducted the experiment and found that the crown was less dense than the gold sample, implicating the goldsmith in fraud.
Scientists who research “unconscious thought” have found that activities that distract the conscious mind without taxing the brain seem to give people greater insight into complex problems. In a study of students who were asked to determine which car would be the best purchase, for instance, the group that spent their decision-making time solving an unrelated puzzle made better choices than the group that deliberated over the information for four minutes.
Brief windows of time spent on routine, mundane activities in the classroom—like feeding the class pet, putting books back on a bookshelf, or rearranging desks—can give learners a much-needed break from the sustained concentration required for academic time on-task.
Standing Up for Downtime
With so much to do and so little learning time in a school year—fitting in downtime is easier said than done. But take heart. Even closing your eyes, taking one deep breath, and exhaling can help to refresh the brain and takes practically no time. Offering more downtime in moment-sized bites might be just the thing for keeping ourselves, our students and our children on schedule and giving our brains that little bit of freedom to turn off for just a minute.
Holiday breaks and vacations are a perfect time for all of us take a break. I’ll be finding some time to unplug, unwind, and turn off. Will you?
2004 Sleep in America Poll. (2004). Retrieved December 8, 2013, from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/
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Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic. (2013). Retrieved December 8, 2013 from http:www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep
Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientificamerican.com.Retrieved November 30, 2013, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mental-downtime
Sabourin, J. Rowe, J.P, Mott, B.,W. & Lester, J.C. (2011). When Off-Task is On-Task: The Affective Role of Off-Task Behavior in Narrative-Centered Learning Environments. Artificial Intelligence in Education, 6738, 534-536. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-21869-9_93
Welsh, J. (2013, October 17). Scientists Have Finally Found The First Real Reason We Need To Sleep. Businessinsider.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-first-real-reason-we-need-to-sleep-2013-10