Summer is here, a time for family vacations, barbeques, outdoor activities, and ideally, a slower pace of life. But if you are like the majority of Americans, you will not take full advantage of the season's opportunities to relax and recharge, and might miss the year's best chance to 'reboot' your brain and better your brain health.
A survey by Harris Interactive for the career website Glassdoor finds three out of four workers with paid vacation do not use all of their leave. The average employee uses only half. Even workers 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.
Some reasons cited in the Harris survey for working while on vacation include: fear of falling behind, desire for a promotion, and fear of losing a job. In short, employees fear time away could cost them something.
But not taking time off costs something, too. Time away from work, school and the stress of a crazy-busy lifestyle is crucial to revitalizing (or renewing) your brain health. We diminish our ability to think creatively and to strategically tackle complex problems, by not giving our brains a vacation.
Our brain thinks more clearly when we get off the hamster wheel, when we are not rushing from one meeting and obligation to the next, when we find time to relax. You have probably experienced moments of insight, or "aha 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 new environment that cannot pull you into constant distractions.
The scientific explanation for this is that 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 not equipped to maintain the chronic stress that is a part of 21st-century life. When someone is under chronic stress, the body releases a stress hormone called 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 the brain's performance. Proven ways to reduce stress include exercising, getting more and better sleep, spending quality time with others, and experiencing new adventures which are 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, disconnecting from 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 new perspective and energy.