The Secret Power of Idleness

The brain does some of its best work when we take a break.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

Most people want to work hard, be productive, and make money. There is little tolerance for slackers. But if we understood what idleness can do for our brains, perhaps we would encourage it more.

The Scheduled Life

The case against idleness is extensively overstated in word and deed. We are told that the Devil finds work for idle hands. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, public and private clocks and timepieces have proliferated. Humans became slaves of time, rising in unison to make it to work by a fixed hour. Moreover, they were inculcated in the proper use of each minute as time and motion experts devised new ways to gin up productivity and sweeten profits.

The scheduled existence has even overstepped the bounds of work and extends into our free time. For some people, this means keeping up a schedule of activities and events over most of the waking day. For others, it means maintaining checklists that prioritize how time is spent. Even schoolchildren maintain schedules of extracurricular classes and sports activities that fill out their waking day.

Yet idleness has profound benefits for our brains.

Idleness and the Brain

We may experience moralistic feelings about the need to be active and productive most of the time. Our brains operate differently. Indeed, some scientists solve problems by dreaming about them. When chemist August Kekule had a reverie involving a snake swallowing its own tail he emerged with the structure of the benzene ring comprised of six carbon atoms.

When we are busiest, our brains are not necessarily doing very much. Conversely, when we take a break and engage in some apparently mindless pursuit like playing solitaire, walking, or shoveling snow, our problem-solving brains kick into overdrive. We may perceive ourselves as taking a mental break but the problem-solving brain never rests. Indeed, the problem-solving parts of the brain are found to be more active when we daydream.

Periods of “unconscious thought” actually improve decision making. During these periods, the same areas of the brain are reactivated that were involved in encoding the decision problem of an experiment. In other words, the brain works steadily on the problem outside of our conscious awareness.

These findings from neuroscience suggest that we have more creative potential if we lead lives of leisure than if we are constantly busy and hurried.

Leisure and Creativity

This is an ancient idea. Aristotle celebrated the value of leisure as a cornerstone of intellectual enlightenment. He believed that true leisure involves pleasure, happiness, and living blessedly. It is more than mere amusement and is impossible for those who must work most of the time.

In Aristotle's slave-based society, many people were forced to work constantly and could forget about leisure and the blessed life. In our time, most people have some leisure time and what matters is not so much the availability of time to develop creative endeavors as the willingness to carve out unscheduled time during which the unconscious mind can develop answers to practical, creative, or intellectual, problems.

Creative people need downtime when their daydreaming brains can bring new ideas, and novel products, to light. One way of achieving this inner quiet is through withdrawing from other people. Perhaps this is why introverts are responsible for so much of the world's creativity.

Yet, there is also an important role for social interaction in spurring creativity; historians frequently point to the clustering of artistic and scientific accomplishments at specific historical times, in particular places, where like-minded creators meet and interact. This phenomenon reminds us that we are social animals who achieve our greatest accomplishments with the help and encouragement of others. Such favored times and places invariably have what could be called a well-developed infrastructure of idleness.

In other words, there are many places where creative people can get together and exchange ideas on whatever surfaces in their relaxing brains.

An Infrastructure for Idleness

When Europe was bombed during World War II, the old infrastructure was destroyed and the Marshall Plan facilitated the construction of spanking new factories that were extremely productive in turning the region into a manufacturing powerhouse.

While we are thoroughly familiar with the connection between physical plant and industrial productivity, we have a far hazier idea of what makes a particular city more creatively productive at a given time in history.

What we do know is that cities are most intellectually productive when they attract large numbers of people who have a propensity for creative pursuits.

The infrastructure of idleness consists partly of numerous cafes, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other “third places” where strangers may meet and become friends and collaborators. Whether it is the diners of New York, the bistros of Paris, or Dublin's pubs, these are places where one goes to relax and to be stimulated by the people around them, whether friend, or stranger. History tells us that such third places are an occasion of idleness that promote all kinds of creative endeavors. Such meetings of seemingly idle minds turn out to be a crucible of human achievement.

They do for our social brain much the same as daydreaming does for the introverted consciousness.