Research on hypnotherapy, naps, meditation and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories and encourage creativity.
People and their brains are preoccupied with work much of the time. Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy. What if the brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas? “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
In a recent thought-provoking review of research on the default mode network, Mary Helen Immordino- Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors argue that when we are resting the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behaviour and instils an internal code of ethics—processes that depend on the default mode network (DMN).
During downtime, the brain also concerns itself with more mundane but equally important duties. Ericsson has concluded that most people can engage in deliberate practice—which means pushing oneself beyond current limits—for only an hour without rest; that extremely talented people in many different disciplines—music, sports, writing— rarely practice more than four hours each day on average; and that many experts prefer to begin training early in the morning when mental and physical energy is readily available.
A short vacation is like a cool shower on an oppressively muggy summer day—a refreshing yet fleeting escape. People seem to be working so many hours that not only in most cases do they not have more hours they could work, but there’s also strong evidence that when they work for too long they get diminishing returns in terms of health costs and emotional costs. “If time is no longer an available resource, what is? The answer is energy.” says Tony Schwartz
Over time expert meditators may also develop a more intricately wrinkled cortex—the brain’s outer layer, which is necessary for many of our most sophisticated mental abilities, like abstract thought and introspection. Meditation appears to increase the volume and density of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped area of the brain that is absolutely crucial.
Just how quickly hypnotherapy, meditation and naps can noticeably change the brain and mind is not yet clear. But a handful of experiments suggest that a couple weeks of hypnotherapy or a mere 10 to 20 minutes of hypnotherapy a day can whet the mind—if people stick with it.