R&R for the Brain: It’s Good to Do Nothing Sometimes

July 3, 2012

New research is showing the importance to our brain’s best work of making sure we build time into our busy lives for reflection, introspection, and imagination—with electronic devices and access to social media turned off. This is as true for children as it is for adults.

In an article entitled “Rest Is Not Idleness” in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues consider what’s happening when our brains are wakefully resting. According to these authors, fMRI data shows that when there’s little by way of external stimulation or intellectual effort required, our minds wander, engaging in a default mode of restful neural processing that is usually suppressed when our attention is focused on the outside world.

In their survey of the literature from neuroscience and psychological science, they conclude that brain systems activated during rest are important for certain kinds of social and emotional processing. These systems are important for our intellectual and psychological functioning, and are associated both with mental health and with cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking. Learning, memory, and well-being are implicated; Immordino-Yang and her colleagues argue that research on the brain at rest can shed light on the importance of reflection and quiet time for learning.

They discuss practical implications of this research for education. “We focus on the outside world in education and don’t look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts. What are we doing in schools to support kids turning inward?”

The authors observe that while outward attention is essential for carrying out tasks and learning from classroom lessons, the reflection and consolidation that can accompany mind wandering is equally important, fostering healthy development and learning over the long run. As with so much else, balance is the key. Attention to content mastery is critically important, but time spent reflecting and imagining—appearing to do nothing, to daydream, or waste time—can actually improve the quality of outward attention that people can sustain. Mindful reflection is also essential to our ability to make sense of the world around us. It contributes to the development of moral reasoning, and is linked with overall well-being.

Immordino-Yang and her colleagues warn that the high attention demands of urban and digital environments—very much including social media—may be distracting young people from looking inward and reflecting, and that this could have a negative impact on their psychological development. They write, “Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about ‘what happened’ or ‘how to do this’ to constructing knowledge about ‘what this means for the world and for the way I live my life.’”

This research provides valuable information for parents. It suggests that children who are given the time and skills they need for mindful introspection, reflection, and contemplation, will be more motivated, be less anxious, perform better on tests, and plan more effectively for the future. It also suggests that parents should be modelling reflection and contemplation themselves, maybe even giving themselves permission for a bit of daydreaming now and then.

In Being Smart about Gifted Education and elsewhere, Joanne Foster and I emphasize the importance to children’s best development of what we’ve called ‘do-nothing times.’ It seems that current scientific research is providing compelling evidence for just that.

Journal reference:

Authors: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh

Article full title: ‘“Rest Is Not Idleness”: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education’

Journal: Perspectives on Psychological Science  http://pps.sagepub.com/content/current

Abstract: http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/4/352.abstract

Article: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-rcf.usc.edu%2F~immordin%2Fpapers%2FI-Y_et_al_REST%25202012.pdf

Thank you to Rebecca McMillan and The Brain Cafe for bringing this to my attention!

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