brains-at-restI don’t agree with Bertrand Russell on much, but I love this quote from In Praise of Idleness: “When the rest of the world thinks we are idle, the brain, if properly trained, is following its own path.”

I wrote a few weeks ago about the virtues of giving the brain time to wander, and I find it profoundly encouraging that neurological studies back me up. Though our brains have seemingly limitless capacity to process information, they still need time and breathing room to do so. They need to sit. To gaze. To simply rest.

(Yes, our brains are always doing something, even when we’re sleeping. But I’m talking about conscious, focused activity. We have limits.)

According to neurological research:

• The brain’s ability to multitask is vastly overestimated—at least in the true sense of processing multiple spheres of information at one time. We can really only focus on one thing at a time, though we passively receive information from several sources at a time. The more projects you are focused on at once, the less effectively you are dealing with each one. You can only do one thing well at a time.

• We need mental down time in order to process and consolidate information. Creativity and memory both suffer when we don’t have it. Down time doesn’t have to be an episode of SpongeBob. It can be reading a book for pleasure, taking in a sunset, or having a casual conversation. The brain is still engaged (unlike with an episode of SpongeBob), but it’s engaged differently. Calmly. With breathing room.

• Technology is negatively rewiring our brains in ways that harm our attention span, our ability to experience pleasure, our ability to deal with anxiety, and our ability to retain information. It has greatly increased the amount of information we process, but it is redefining how we process—and, more specifically, how we learn—and not always for the better. (The Digital Invasion, Archibald Hart and Sylvia Hart Frejd, Baker 2013)

• Spiritual practices like deep, focused prayer can positively rewire our brains to enhance both physical and emotional health. In fact, research is showing that we are originally wired for spiritual experiences and predisposed for faith (What Your Body Knows About God, Rob Moll, IVP 2014). When we honor that aspect of ourselves, our work, our relationships, and our mental health benefit.

Obviously these facts have huge implications for the writing process, which is what most concerns me, being a writer and all. But they apply to virtually any area of life and to modern lifestyles in general. If you want to be an effective writer—or perhaps simply an effective person—you’ll need to buck the trend, swim upstream, defy the odds, or whatever other image you want to use for behaving differently from the rest of society.

The bottom line is that you need to give your brain time to wander, refresh, and rethink. You need not only to take in information but to take your time processing it. If you’re a writer like me, this is absolutely vital for the creative process. But whatever field you work in, it’s a key to being productive, not burning out, and having some semblance of quality of life. 

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©2013-present by chris tiegreen