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Why Your Mind Needs a Break

Research shows why a vacation is crucial to ideal brain function.

Summer is here—time for family vacations, barbeques, and ideally a slower pace of life. But if you're like the majority of Americans, you will not take full advantage of the season to relax and recharge, missing out on the year's best chance to "reboot" your brain and boost brain health.

A survey by Harris Interactive for the career Web site Glassdoor found that three out of four workers with paid vacation do not use all of their leave. The average employee, in fact, uses only half. But even those who take time off often bring the office along, via laptops, tablets, and cell phones. In the same survey, 61 percent of respondents said they work while on vacation, with cited reasons including fear of falling behind, the desire for a promotion, and concern about losing a job. In short, employees fear that time away could cost them something.

But not taking time off costs something, too.

Time away from work, school, and the stress of a busy lifestyle is crucial to revitalizing (or renewing) your brain health. By denying our brains a vacation, we diminish our ability to think creatively and strategically tackle complex problems. Our brain thinks more clearly when we get off the hamster wheel, stop rushing from one obligation to the next, and make time to relax. You have probably experienced moments of insight, or "a-ha moments," when a creative new idea or solution to a vexing problem suddenly occurs to you. This typically happens when you are not using up your mental energy focusing on the mistakes of yesterday or the rapidly accumulating tasks of tomorrow. Breakthrough thinking commonly occurs when you just let your mind freely imagine and wander—removed from the context of your day-to-day grind—in a different environment that will not pull you into constant distractions.

The scientific explanation for this: The frontal lobe brain networks—responsible for reasoning, planning, decision-making, and judgment—work for you in creative ways when the brain is quiet, not while you are effortfully trying to find a solution to a problem. Moments of insight increase as the brain unwinds. Why? When not actively tackling a task, the brain connects random ideas and consolidates these with prior knowledge into exciting new thoughts, ideas, directions, and potential solutions.

Vacations are important because our bodies and brains are just not equipped to maintain the chronic stress that is a part of 21st-century life. When you're under chronic stress, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol damage the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. So reducing stress is key to maximizing your brain's performance. Proven ways to do this include exercising, getting more and better sleep, spending quality time with others, and experiencing new adventures—all more likely to happen while on vacation.

Also critical: Disconnecting from technology. Your brain needs a break from your devices. So-called multitasking—checking email while writing a report, or responding to a text message while sitting in a meeting—does not make us more productive, it actually slows down thinking and output. The human brain is not wired to perform two tasks at once. Forcing our minds to switch back and forth quickly between tasks fatigues the frontal lobe, slowing its efficiency and performance. Too much time online can even leave people feeling isolated, anxious and depressed.

But there is a simple solution, well within reach. Each of us can choose to power down and spend less time on our devices. We can take a few minutes' break every hour; we can spend an afternoon or evening away from technological intrusions. We can put limits on our children's cell phone use.

So do your brains—and yourselves—a favor this summer: Take a vacation. A real vacation is best, as disconnecting from your technology for a period of time will work wonders. You will return to work or school reinvigorated and calm. And your brain will be tuned-up—ready to creatively tackle the most challenging problems with fresh perspective and energy.

Copyright Sandra Bond Chapman

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