Rebooting the brain on holiday

Aug 19, 2014
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reset_brainI took a short holiday this summer, only one week. I should relativize this: one week falls on the long end for a typical American vacation period, but in Southern Europe taking off for only week in the summer is laughable. Unfortunately, one week was all I could afford given the busiest June and July in my professional career.

Still, the respite proved incredibly refreshing, most likely because for 8 straight days I disconnected from everything: no email (personal or business), no smartphone (with the exception of my Strava app for cycling), no social media. Just a couple books, daily triathlon training, and relaxing meals in a shaded garden.

Disconnecting from the grid completely for one week in August is easy to do guilt-free. Despite my European conversion, I still cannot manage to shake that American trait of feeling a tad guilty when the vacation extends into two or three weeks. Incidentally, this is not a judgment on European work habits. I’ve long argued that European productivity remains on par with other developed countries, albeit exhibiting greater variance (for example, June is practically twice as productive as May in France, I submit).

Anyway, I believe that one week fully off the grid beats three weeks tethered to a smartphone hands down. Even “casually checking email in the mornings,” for example, kills the vibe, I would argue. I returned from a short week off brimming with ideas and in one case, a creative solution to one of my portfolio company’s seemingly intractable problems.

Professors Levitin and Menon, of cognition sciences at McGill and of neuroscience at Stanford, respectively, have demonstrated that there exists an actual science behind this conviction. In Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain, they describe how the human brain possesses two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network. The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering, in daydreaming mode. The latter is what generates the insight and creativity to conceive brilliant ideas. The former enables the implementation of them. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not. Switching between the two is controlled in a part of the brain called the insula, the researchers have shown.

Here’s the clincher: this attention switch can fatigue us if it’s called upon to seesaw too frequently. Checking email or social media status updates breaks the creative flow.