Do you sometimes feel like you’re rushing from one thing to the next – or, as my mother would say, like a “chicken with its head cut off”?
I’ve been running around a lot these days.
Most of it comes with the territory of parenting two teenagers in the summertime.
But along with that, I’ve also noticed a lack of focus and insight, or new ideas.
When we don’t have a lot of time to slow down, physically and mentally, it begins to affect our brain patterns. Plus, it’s tiring.
Brain networks for focus and reflection
Our brains are meant to both focus and to wander, reflect and imagine.
In fact, neuroscience has given names to two distinct brain networks:
(1) the central executive network (CEN) is for Doing and focused attention. It’s like the brain’s cognitive control system, directing thoughts, attention and behavior to get it done!
(2) the default mode network (DMN) is for Being and self-reflection. This is active when we don’t need to focus on what we’re doing. It’s for mind-wandering, dreaming, and insight.
When one network is active, the other will be somewhat inhibited.
So if we are constantly ticking off our to-do lists, the CEN will be active for focus and cognitive control, but the DMN will not be able to access new ideas and develop deeper understandings.
Downsides of shifting focus
When we’re running around a lot, we need to keep shifting our focus from one task to the next. We can start to feel distracted, because holding focus is not possible or too taxing.
Shifting focus is tiring. It literally requires cognitive control which uses a fair amount of the body’s energy.
It also keeps us from thinking deeply about a problem, getting into a flow state, and accessing the DMN for insights and creativity.
Benefits of slowing down
Beyond the obvious benefits of lowering stress and fatigue, research shows that carving out time to slow down can also benefit your brain, your creativity, your relationships and your well-being.
We also have a greater chance of activating the DMN.
Research confirms that when the DMN is active, we shut out external stimulation and reflect internally, and we are more likely to access creative ideas and new solutions.
The DMN helps us process information about ourselves, others, the past and the future. It helps us to make sense of the world. (For a detailed piece on DMN, check out this Scientific American article.)
So if we can slow down and let our minds wander, we can access social-emotional intelligence, new understandings about ourselves and others, and novel thinking that’s not available when we’re rushing around and shifting our focus all the time.
Some researchers have even argued that constant distractions such as social media and devices, which control our attention and inhibit the DMN, have a negative effect on the development of identity and social cognition.
Time to slow down
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu
This month I am finally taking some time to vacation with my family. But among travel days, I am also hoping to have a time to relax, slow down, and not focus on doing anything.
I know I need this time away from routine and the running around, task-switching, and doing mode.
But we don’t always need to take a vacation for this. We can also take a day, or even an hour, to devote to slowing down, relaxing, and letting the mind wander. If you couple this with being in nature, you’re more likely to also reduce stress and feel greater well-being.
What will you do this month to give yourself and your brain the gift of slowing down?
Photo by Frames For Your Heart on Unsplash