The Nuance

Why Your Brain Needs Idle Time

Some vital brain functions demand downtime

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readFeb 14, 2019

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Credit: Chris Madden/Getty Images

Every week, the Nuance will go beyond the basics, offering a deep and researched look at the latest science and expert insights on a buzzed-about health topic.

YYour attention may be your most precious resource, and you only have so much of it to spread around each day.

Work and social obligations demand a portion of it. And it’s easy to occupy whatever is left over with stimuli of one kind or another — whether it’s listening to a podcast or watching a show. For many people, time spent in the shower or trying to fall asleep at night may be the only remaining scraps of the day when their mind is wholly free to wander.

None of this may seem like a problem. After all, why waste time doing nothing when you could be doing something fun or productive? As long as you’re occupying your mind with (mostly) high-quality content, what’s the harm?

“The research on learning is extremely clear,” says Loren Frank, a professor at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. “To learn something well, you need to study it for a while and then take a break.”

Frank points to the evidence on educational training, which has shown again and again that people retain new information best when their minds are given time off to encode and consolidate. Even outside of study contexts, taking small breaks after digesting new material — whether it’s a news article or an important email — appears to help your brain parse and memorize what you’ve just learned.

To better understand how brains process new information, Frank has conducted brain-scan experiments on rats. He and his colleagues have shown that when rats are allowed to rest after completing an unfamiliar maze, their brains appear to automatically replay the experience of navigating the maze. Confronted later with the same labyrinth, the rats find their way through it more quickly.

“We know the brain can get into its downtime state very quickly, and the education research suggests just a few minutes — five to 15 — are enough to…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.