How idleness ignites imagination.
Posted Oct 25, 2019
"There is no rest for the weary." This mindless maxim guides our modern lives and directs us to persevere and refuse respite from our frenzied schedules. Relaxation is relegated to a pointless element in our quest for a successful life.
Is this conscientious conviction beneficial or is constant striving without reprieve misguided?
Daily life is a deluge—of information, obligations, and responsibilities. While knowledge and dependability are positive human attributes, our constant go mode may be detrimental for our creative faculties.
Have you ever observed when novel thoughts come to mind? Perhaps it is while relaxing in your favorite cozy nook or daydreaming during a tranquil shower—my personal favorites. It is unlikely that you visualize, conceive, and create innovative ideas when frazzled and straining to arrive on time to a meeting or scheduled activity.
Because creativity may be the currency of the future, our noble intentions to be industrious may have detrimental consequences as society evolves and the necessity of ingenuity increases.
The Human Race
"Why am I racing? What am I winning? Does all of my running keep the world spinning?"
What is our goal? For many of us, the completion point of our constant striving is nonexistent. We desperately attempt to stay on a treadmill that spins around and around with no definitive end. We are afraid to falter—assuming that a slowdown will knock us off the only life path we can envision.
What are we afraid of? Most people can't explain why they choose to be so busy. In fact, most don't see it as a choice instead referring to a nebulous combination of this is what I know and this is what I have to do.
Do We Have to Be Busy?
Human perception is a peculiar process. Our brains desire certainty as an evolutionary adaptation to keep us safe. In earlier human history, this predictive model worked well to keep us sheltered from potential threats. However, as we traverse into a wholly different world dominated by technology and new alternatives for life trajectories, this perceptual model may hold us back by steering us to conform to the masses.
We perceive the world around us based on everything we know—all of our past experiences combine to construct our reality. It is challenging to consider alternative paths when we are surrounded by people who glorify their busy lifestyles. Preoccupation with constant activity has become a badge of honor.
The Neuroscience of Rest
"Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something."
—Winnie the Pooh in "Christopher Robin"
Neuroscience reveals Pooh's insightful words have neuroscientific support. While resting, our brains are not idle; they are strengthening neural connections. Evidence from animal models suggests that relaxation reinforces connections and consolidates memories within our brains.
Structural and functional neuroimaging research suggests that certain brain areas—the Default Mode Network—play a large role in the development of creative thought.
Fascinatingly, the activation of this network primarily occurs during restful states. Brigid Schulte describes this process:
"Neuroscience is finding that when we are idle, in leisure, our brains are most active. The Default Mode Network lights up, which, like airport hubs, connects parts of our brain that don't typically communicate. So a stray thought, a random memory, an image can combine in novel ways to produce novel ideas."
How can we go beyond what we already know? Our brain requires rest to blend disparate pieces of information and strengthen connections through down-regulation. We need downtime to come up with new ideas.
Dr. Rex Jung suggests this downtime provides the foundation for our "ideas to run into each other." The ideas can then combine in an original way and produce a novel thought.
The Importance of Brief Diversion
Even brief diversions from sustained attention can reignite your ability to attend to important tasks and inspire a creative stream of ideas. Psychologists have known for decades that our sensory perception habituates to the same sensations over time. This adaptation occurs when sensory receptors respond less to unchanging stimuli, such as when you smell your mom's cooking when you first get home but ten minutes later you can no longer smell it.
"Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness."
Lleras and Ariga set out to investigate if sustained attention to thoughts would have the same results. That is, would individuals habituate to thoughts in the same way they habituate to sensory input?
Their results indicate that a similar process occurs. To combat this phenomenon, the researchers suggest mental breaks to disrupt habituation when we are confronted with lengthy tasks that require sustained mental effort.
Resting is not rocket science. We need to do less and relax more. Take time off and don't feel guilty. Deliberate periodic rest has been shown to replenish work motivation and productivity, among other positive outcomes.
Being always on should not be a badge of honor. Employers should take heed and change the conversation.
Say no to overscheduling yourself and your children. Do not feel shame for refusing to sign yourself or your child up for another team, club, or class.
Finally, the next time someone questions your vacation time or mid-day break, just say you are activating your Default Mode Network!