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Harvard Health Blog
Secret to brain success: Intelligent cognitive rest
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Many people do focused brain exercises to help develop their thinking. Some of these exercises work, while others do not. Regardless, the focus network in the brain is not the only network that needs training. The "unfocus" network needs training too.
The "unfocus network" (or default mode network)
Called the default mode network (DMN), we used to think of the unfocus network as the Do Mostly Nothing network. And this network uses more energy than any other network in the brain, consuming 20% of the body's energy while at rest. In fact, effort requires just 5% more energy. As you can imagine, this network is doing anything but "resting" even though it operates largely under the conscious radar. Instead, when you turn your "focus" brain off, it will retrieve memories, link ideas so that you become more creative, and also help you feel more self-connected too. Somewhat surprisingly, although the DMN is involved in representing and understanding your self, it also helps you read the minds of others. No wonder then, with all these functions on board, this network metaphorically converts your brain into a crystal ball, allowing you to predict things more accurately too. This is the kind of sharpness that you will develop if you train the DMN.
There are many ways to activate the DMN. Below are some that will give you a good start.
Surprising ways to train the default mode network
Some simple interventions could help you engage this network, depending on your goal.
Napping: If, for example, you are dog tired in the midafternoon, and just need your mind to be clear, a 10-minute nap might be all you need for sharper thinking. But if you have a major creative project ahead of you, whether it is an innovative idea at work, or redecorating your house, you will need at least 90-minutes of napping time. This gives your brain enough time to shuttle around ideas to make the associations that it needs to make.
Positive constructive daydreaming (PCD): It's hard to imagine daydreaming as a type of training, but it is. It has to be the right type of daydreaming. According to Jerome Singer, who has studied this for decades, slipping into a daydream is not of much use; neither is guiltily rehashing everything that makes you feel bad — like the expense you incurred when you bought the shoes you liked, or the one-too-many drinks that you had at a party. But there is a type of daydreaming that will make you more creative and likely re-energize your brain. Called positive constructive daydreaming (PCD), it is best done while you are engaged in a low-key activity, not when you are fading. And as opposed to slipping into a daydream, which is more like falling off a cliff, you must parachute into the recesses of your mind with a playful and wishful image — perhaps one of you lying on a yacht or floating on your back in a pool on vacation. Then comes the swivel of attention — from looking outside, to wandering inside. With this move, you engage your unfocus brain and all the riches that it can bring.
Physical exercise and free-walking:In the brain, thinking supports movement, and movement supports thinking. In fact, exercise improves your DMN function. It normalizes it in obese people (who have too much of it) and increases connectivity in young healthy people. Even a single session can make a difference. Aerobic exercise can help prevent atrophy of key regions within the DMN, and also help the connectivity between different regions too.
Walking does boost creative thinking, but how you walk matters. One year of walking boosts the connections between the different parts of the DMN too. In 2012, psychology professor Angela K. Leung and her colleagues tested three groups of people. One group walked around in rectangles while completing a mental test; one group walked around freely; and the last group sat down while taking the test. The free-walking group outperformed the other two groups. Other studies have shown that free-walking results in improvements in fluency, flexibility, and originality of thinking. So if you want to boost your creativity, go on a meandering hike on a safe path less traveled. Furthermore, walking outdoors may be even more beneficial than puttering around the house (unless you're using PCD, of course!)
Why you should focus on unfocus
We now know that focus is important in improving how we think, but for optimal brain training, we need both focus and unfocus. So, build unfocus times into your day. Ensure that you're not in one continuous slog. Your brain is wired for focus and unfocus to work together, so take advantage of both types of intelligence when thinking of training your complex but delightful brain.
You can learn more about the benefits of unfocus and how you can build it into your day, in Dr. Pillay's new book Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try.
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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