With the growth of the infinite internet, 500 channel 24-hour television, and mobile phones that are really little computers, you are now bombarded with five times as much information every day as a person received in 1986. According to Welcome to the information age:
Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.
That’s a lot of info buzzing around you.
No wonder anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S, and depression rates increase by a whopping 20 percent every year. No wonder the CDC declared insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.
Your Brain Wasn’t Made For A Marathon
The human brain wasn’t designed to pay attention and be alert for hours at a time. Over millions of years of evolution, human life moved at a much slower pace, in rhythm with the sun and nature. In the societies of our ancestors, hunting and gathering food and tending to the other necessities of life would have only consumed a few hours a day. That left a lot of time for a person’s brain and body to relax, socialize, or be in a state of rest.
Now, most Americans sprint through life, working 10 hours a day, doing the same thing all day long. Then, they come home and spend hours on the computer doing more work, playing on their phone, watching TV, or engaging in some other mind stimulating activity. After getting too little sleep, they jump out of bed only to do it over again.
This modern lifestyle produces chronic stress which shows up as all kinds of mental and physical health problems.
Working Brain Breaks Into Your Work Day
The brain is much more active – and more likely to tire – than any other muscle or organ in your body. Evidence shows that your brain cycles from highest attention to lowest attention every 90 minutes in what’s called an ultradian rhythm. You can only maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest. Honoring the natural rhythm of our brains and seeing brain breaks as part of, not counter to, working, can make a person more productive, creative, and innovative.
Some work cultures are adopting this flow. In 5 Ways to Give Your Brain a Break Right Now, Jeff Stibel writes:
Hip Silicon Valley tech companies started the growing trend of offering their employees unique perks that seem to encourage stepping away from the desk. Google’s free massages, Twitter’s rock climbing wall, and Dropbox’s gaming tournaments come to mind. Some may dismiss these initiatives as ploys for PR or to impress new recruits, but there is solid evidence that fun creativity breaks actually improve employee productivity.
One of the best ways to recharge is to engage in something different. If you’ve been reviewing a document for 90 minutes, don’t take a break by reading news articles. Get up and do something completely different. The brain is an efficient task-switcher; it has no problem going from java programming to power yoga to basket weaving. And doing so may make you a better java programmer, since you’ve allowed your brain’s java programming circuit to rest. If you are a slave to work, then switch tasks productively, from programming to checking email to thinking about a new problem.
Building Brain Breaks Into Your Life
Your brain not only needs frequent breaks during the day, but it also needs time away from work, school, and the stress of your life periodically to revitalize and renew. By depriving your brain of such downtime, you diminish your ability to think creatively and strategically handle complex problems. Our brain thinks more clearly when we step out of the hectic routines of our lives, stop rushing from one obligation to the next, and make time to switch gears and relax.
Research shows that the frontal lobe brain networks, responsible for reasoning, planning, decision-making, and judgment, work in creative ways when your brain is quiet, not while actively thinking or problem-solving. A-ha moments happen when your brain is offline because that’s when it connects various random ideas and makes associations with prior knowledge to form new thoughts, ideas, direction, and insight.
Giving your brain a vacation is important because it potentially allows you to lower cortisol, the stress hormone. Studies have determined that high levels of cortisol damage the brain’s hippocampus, the learning and memory center.
Reducing stress is essential to maximizing your brain’s performance. While it’s best to build stress-reducing activities into your life regularly, such as exercising, getting more sleep, and spending time with others, a vacation can include more of all those as well as novel experiences – which are great for your brain.
Simple Ways To Take Brain Breaks
Here are some ways to give your brain a little time off.
Go outside – Research shows that different brain regions are activated when you’re outside. Getting out in the sunshine also increases your production of Vitamin D and serotonin – plus it just feels good. If you can’t go outside, look out a window.
Get physical – Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. If you can’t get in a full workout, go for a walk, take the stairs, park farther away from your destination. If you’re at work, take five minutes and stretch, do some yoga postures, jumping jacks or push ups.
Take a nap – According to neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay in “The neurobiology of the afternoon nap,” a brief nap not only reduces sleepiness, but it also improves cognitive function and enhances short-term memory and mood.
Meditate – Meditation increases activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, the rational brain, and reduces activity in the amygdala, the fear center. Science has determined that meditation stimulates activity in regions of the left prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with positive emotions while decreasing activity in parts of the brain related to negative emotions. I have a daily practice, and it feels an “Aaah” that recharges my brain.
Unplug – If only for a few minutes several times a day, silence your phone and don’t answer it. Let the computer go to sleep. Turn off the TV or music. Silence is good for your brain.
Zone out – Let yourself do nothing for a while and just let your mind wander. It may even make you more productive. Research shows that “creative incubation” happens during mind-wandering. You are more likely to problem-solve successfully if you let your mind wander and then come back to the challenge.
Take a mental holiday – As opposed to freely letting your mind wander, visualize images that you find relaxing and happy. The thoughts, words, and pictures that run through your mind have physiological consequences for your body. In your brain, there’s not much difference between actually being at the beach and visualizing it.