A busy brain
Got a busy brain? Many of us are busy doing, planning and deciding even more than usual at the end of the year, with both deadlines and gifts to wrap up.
Let’s face it, there’s always something or someone needing our busy brain’s attention. But when we’re constantly doing and don’t slow down, we can get out of balance.
The busy brain requires a lot of energy, which is exhausting. At the same time, it can be hard to switch off. We may start forgetting things, make bad decisions, lose motivation or have trouble sleeping.
In order to help us get everything done, the body releases higher levels of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. But research has shown that high levels of these chemicals cause the brain’s neural activity to shift from a slower, reasoned response (from the prefrontal cortex) to a rapid, instinctive reaction (largely in the amygdala).
If our brains could write a wish list, I think at the top – along with sleep and healthy food – would be downtime and focused time.
Downtime is about giving your mind the space to wander. You’re alert but not actively engaged in any task or thought that requires focus.
In downtime, the body has no need for the rush of chemicals like adrenaline or cortisol that it needs when we’re on the go. It’s a signal to your busy brain that it can shift out of task-mode which happens in the central executive or “task positive” network.
The brain works in a different way during downtime, engaging a network called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN helps the brain process information about the self and others, and about the past and future. It helps us to make sense of the world and ourselves.
This important network can also help us access new ideas and creativity, develop greater understanding, and a greater connection to others and the world around us. (An overactive DMN can be associated with anxiety and depression, but with healthy connections to the pre-frontal cortex, we can regulate that and also receive the benefits of the network.)
Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas come when you’re not trying to think about anything in particular? You may be in the shower or brushing your teeth, and suddenly the thought comes. That came from the DMN!
So how do we intentionally activate the DMN?
We need to allow the brain to rest and shut out the external world so it can reflect internally. For example, doing nothing, or doing a simple, relaxing activity like taking a bath or a stroll outside would engage the DMN. Activities watching t.v., reading, or engaging in conversation do not because they require processing external information.
Without a task or problem to focus on, the brain can wander, make new connections and explore new ideas. We just need to give it a chance, with more downtime.
Similar to downtime, mindfulness helps the busy brain get out of task-mode; but unlike downtime, the mind is focused.
Mindfulness is not about having no thoughts – that’s a common misconception. It’s about noticing the distracting thoughts when they arise, which they will!
Mindfulness is about keeping our attention focused in the present moment in a particular way. Forms include focused attention (e.g., on the breath, a sound or a sensation), open awareness (e.g. focusing on your present-moment experience), and kind intention (e.g. focusing on kind intentions towards self and others, also called compassion practice).
With mindfulness practice, you are training the brain to notice thoughts or to direct your attention in a chosen way. Mindfulness can be practiced while sitting, standing, walking or lying down. The usual recommended time is 20 minutes a day, but positive results have also been shown from 12 minutes a day.
We can also have moments of mindfulness at any time of the day by simply pausing and paying full attention to the present moment.
More and more research is showing that mindfulness can benefit our brains, and our bodies. Studies have linked a mindfulness practice to:
– reduced stress hormone levels;
– improved immune system functions;
– improved cardiovascular system functions;
– a healthier prefrontal cortex (related to executive functioning);
– an improved hippocampus (which is associated with memory); and
– an amygdala that becomes less activated in response to stress.
(For more on the research, see studies from Dr. Sara Lazar at Harvard and references from Aware by Dr. Dan Siegel.)
Even short-term meditation training can improve attention and self-regulation, according to recent research.
Getting started with a practice is as easy as deciding how much time you have, and finding an online meditation or app to suit your needs (e.g., Insighttimer.com or Calm.com).
With practice, you will strengthen the brain’s neural connections, particularly in the all-important prefrontal cortex. You and your brain will begin to reap the many benefits.
Give your brain quiet time
Given all our busy brains do for us each day, isn’t it time we helped them out?
Our culture doesn’t value time that doesn’t seem productive. But that’s misguided.
Giving your brain quiet time, both in a wakeful rest and in a mindfulness practice, helps your brain function better, which means you function better. And you might even make meaningful connections and new insights – so needed in the world today!
What will you do to schedule some downtime and/or mindfulness for your brain and your well-being?
Share in the comments, and pass this post along to a friend with a busy brain!
Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash