Take a Break and Let Your Brain Do Its Best Work | TechWell

Take a Break and Let Your Brain Do Its Best Work

Don’t work straight through…. Stop periodically…. Get away from your work…. Take a walk…. Spend a few minutes doing something else….

Advice about taking periodic short breaks has been around for a while. The idea is that by getting away from your work, you’ll be able to focus better when you get back to it. You’ll be more alert and therefore more productive. You’ll avoid burnout.

As this infographic shows, a two-minute break is enough time to rest your eyes or stand and stretch. But even a fifteen-second break every ten minutes can significantly reduce fatigue and improve mental acuity. These brief microbreaks are especially important for chair-bound workers, who can remain sedentary for hours at a time. (Are you one such?)

It turns out, though, that there’s more to breaks than meets the eye because it’s when you take a break from your job that your brain sometimes does its best work. In his book The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success, Ori Brafman points out that when a person stops working on a task, the part of the brain that worked on the task goes quiet. But other parts of the brain “light up” with electrical activity.

These areas, which have been dubbed the default mode network, constitute a network that bridges various parts of the brain. This network not only doesn’t turn off, it kicks in whenever we’re not focusing on a task. It’s always on unless we’re focused on a task. As Brafman explains, “the default mode network is always engaged, unless we actually interrupt it to perform a specific task. We’re constantly engaged in a process that is ungoverned by conscious thought.”

Molecular biologist John Medina comments in his book Brain Rules that the brain is amazingly active during periods of what we would describe as rest, with “legions of neurons crackling electrical commands to one another in constantly shifting patterns—displaying greater rhythmical activity during sleep, actually, than when it is wide awake.”

These findings suggests that when we take a break from a task, our brains continue working, quite possibly solving problems, weaving together data we’ve taken in, and making connections among things we've experienced. This could be why we sometimes get stuck on a problem and can’t solve it no matter how long and hard we work on it, but when we get away from it for a while, a solution suddenly emerges.

It may even be that the things we know as "eureka" moments—those times when inspiration strikes and a solution or explanation suddenly appears—are the result of the default mode network continuing to work on a problem even when the conscious mind has taken a time-out.

So, take a break and let your brain go at it.

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