Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why your brain needs vacations?

brain

In a culture that seems obsessed with productivity and efficiency, there’s too much talk about working and a little about vacations. However, finding time to relax and disconnect from everyday stress is critical, especially for our brains. In fact, sometimes if you feel saturated, it is likely due to the limitations of your conscious mind, to the limits of your attentional resources and your ability to work.

Our brain burns a lot of energy


For a long time scientists believed that the brain always keeps active, even when we rest or sleep. However, the appearance of the EEG and the functional magnetic resonance imaging later, revealed a different reality: our brain turns off areas which is not using.

In fact, different activities activate different neural circuits, at which increases the demand for oxygen and glucose for the extra energy we need. However, the fact that our brain turns off some areas and not others, doesn’t mean it is a great energy saver. We can’t forget that the brain consumes approximately 20% of the energy produced by our body, and requires between an additional 5 and 10% when we’re calculating or reading a book.

In this sense, a research conducted at the University of Southern California, revealed that when the brain is “resting” is not being unproductive really, quite the opposite. That default network is essential to reaffirm our identity, to better understand what’s hiding behind others’ behavior and even helps us process our moral code. Therefore, the rest is an opportunity to reaffirm the brain foreground, work on unresolved issues and take an emotional distance from the problems.

When we let the mind wander, rewinds conversations we’ve had and allows us find where we’ve been wrong. We can also end a discussion mentally, with cathartic purposes and to avoid a face to face confrontation. Or we can add mental notes to allow us plan the next day and find solutions to complex problems, explanations to help us provide a more comprehensive and coherent sense to our “self”.

We can do all these things in an “off mode” because our brain has two attentional pathways: the network processing positive tasks and another for the negative tasks. The network processing positive tasks, also called executive control, is activated when we focus on a task. On the contrary, the default network processing negative tasks, also known as neural network by default, is activated when we let our mind wander, when we have a daydream. However, when one of these networks is active, the other is turned off.

As you can imagine, both networks are important and permitted us great discoveries. In fact, that negative processing network tasks is precisely what allows us to make connections between disparate ideas, is responsible of our moments of genius and helps us solve the most complicated problems through moments of insight. When you find, suddenly, the solution of a problem, you have to thank the default neural network.

On the other hand, there’s another important component of the attentional system, the filters. These help us direct our attention, telling us on what we should concentrate our attention and what stimuli we should ignore. However, the constant flow of information to which we’re actually submitted, causes the executive control to be always active, while the most creative part of the brain remains off. Then, occasionally it is necessary to take a vacation from the daily routine.


7 good reasons to take a vacation


1. Enhance creativity

As you can imagine, while working we’re functioning in a “focused mode”, then it’s normal that after a while our brain ends oversaturated. In fact, it is estimated that actually, with news, social networks, email messages and television, we consume the equivalent of 174 pages of a newspaper each day, five times more than in 1986. With so much information, it’s normal for the brain to be supersaturated. Therefore, holidays allow us to disconnect from the world and leave a part of our brain wander, precisely that one responsible to connect unrelated ideas and give us insights. Then, it’s not surprising that researchers discovered that the most creative people are precisely those among whom the default neural network remains particularly active.

2. Helps us make better decisions

The brain works better when it’s not under pressure, operating in a “relaxed mode”. In fact, it has been discovered that after a relaxing walk in a natural environmnet or even after a nap, our cognitive processes are improved, especially attention and memory. A study conducted at the University of Amsterdam, revealed that even before making an important decision, is better we take our time and rest. Once assimilated all the necessary details, continuing beating around the bush doens’t lead us make the best decision, it’s better we take a psychological distance. In fact, a nice vacation allows activate our default neural network to integrate information, helping us to decide better.

3. Relieve stress

Holidays are the best antidote to stress, a response triggered when we’re under pressure and feel that our environment isn’t safe enough. At that time, our bodies begin to release large amounts of cortisol and epinephrine, hormones that not only prepare us for fight or flight but in the long run, cause an inflammatory response that ends up profoundly affecting the brain and leading to chronic diseases. Taking a vacation away from the stress of the work and daily routine helps us relax, reduces anxiety levels and gives our body a chance to repair the damage and regenerate. In fact, we shouldn’t forget that stress kills neurons and prevents new nerve cells from being formed.

4. Generates new ideas

Any break is good for the brain, but a period of vacation far from home in contact with other cultures, is like a real brain massage that promotes new ideas. This is widely shown by a study conducted at the Singapore Management University, which also points out that the degree of creativity is larger the more willing we are to delve into the new customs we find in the new country. Therefore, travelling is not enough, we need to explore the place and open up to new ways of living with a relaxed, non-judgmental attitude. Only then we’ll realize that there’s no a “right” way of doing things, but only different paths.

5. Makes us happier

Chronic stress contributes to increased levels of depression and anxiety. In fact, people who don’t take vacations regularly tend to report three times more depression and anxiety than those who manage to disconnect regularly from work. The key, as demonstrated by a study conducted at the University of Rotterdam, lies in happiness. According to the researchers, two weeks of vacation are enough to relax and feel much happier. During that time the amount of endorphins that your body produces is enough to counteract the harmful effects of stress hormones.

6. Increase concentration

Although it may seem contradictory, the fact is that vacations help keep us focused. In fact, chronic stress directly affects the part of the brain associated with memory and achievement of objectives. Therefore, people who work continuously without taking vacation, often feel blocked and have difficulty concentrating. Instead, when we return from vacation we feel full of energy, our ability to react is increased and we’re able to remain focused longer.

7. Increases productivity

Being productive doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of time working, but use that time to the maximum. Therefore, the most productive firms, and also where workers get sick the less, are those in which employees can take more days off. In fact, most people report feeling more satisfied with their work when have the possibility to go on holiday with some regularity. That sense of satisfaction is reversed in productivity, creating also a better working climate.

3 keys for holiday to have a positive effect

1. Explore new things. It’s not just to relax at home but to explore the world and discover new things. When we leave familiar surroundings we take on new perspectives because we put distance between ourselves and the problems, which allows us to think more clearly, as if we were an outside observer. Then it’s not surprising that many people have genuine experiences of pure joy when travelling. Therefore, it means you have to explore and keep away from the daily routine, opening to new experiences that expand your comfort zone.

2. Assume a mindful attitude. To really take advantage of the holiday, it is essential you learn tuning out the problems left behind and be ready to fully live the present, assuming a mindful attitude, a concept derived from Buddhism that involves focusing on the here and now. If you're one of those people who find it difficult to disconnect from work and problems at home, you should choose healthy and exotic destinations, places where nature prevails and relaxation is guaranteed.

3. Don’t judge. To be immersed in a different culture is good and healthy, but only if we don’t judge, don’t criticize but are willing to absorb everything that happens around us. In fact, it has been seen that people who spend more time abroad are also more creative and develop a more flexible thinking. However, it’s not the duration of the holiday that guarantees the benefit, but the desire to understand the local reality and willingness to assume point of views different from ours. 


Sources:
Immordino, M. H. et. Al. (2012) Rest Is Not Idleness. Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education. Perspectives on Psychological Science; 7(4): 352-364.
Nawijn, J. et Al. (2010) Vacationers Happier, but Most not Happier After a Holiday. Applied Research in Quality of Life; 5(1): 35-47. 
Leung, A. K. et. Al. (2008) Multicultural experience enhances creativity: the when and how. The American Psychologist; 63(3): 169-181. 
Dijksterhuis, A. et. Al. (2006) On making the right choice: the deliberation-without-attention effect. Science; 311(5763):1005-1007.

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Jennifer Delgado Suárez

Psicologist by profession and passion, dedicated to to string words together. Discover my Books

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