Give Your Brain a Break

Day dreaming and rest may help moral learning and memory

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) "Buzzzzz!" A new text message. "Ding!" Another instant message. "Bloop!" A new email. And then you hear the music of your phone's ringtone. When does your brain ever get to rest?

A recent study suggests that "brain rest" might be particularly important for social and emotional development, memory and learning.

Making time to think inwardly and even to daydream could be an important and healthy part of daily life.

"Unplug… and daydream a little."

The study, led by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, included a review of the current research literature in neuroscience and psychological science related to brains when they are "resting."

Basically when the brain is at rest, an area of the brain becomes more active that some call the "default mode" network.

Researchers have seen this area light up during scans of the brain in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan.

The studies that Dr. Immordino-Yang looked at appeared to offer evidence that what's going on in this default mode area may be linked to a person's social and emotional attributes, such as their self-awareness and their moral judgment.

There are also connections to a person's learning and memory during times of quiet rest in the brain.

Mind-wandering and daydreaming may actually help attention issues and learning in kids, said Dr. Immordino-Yang.

"We focus on the outside world in education and don't look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts," said Dr. Immordino-Yang,

"Balance is needed between outward and inward attention, since time spent mind wandering, reflecting and imagining may also improve the quality of outward attention that kids can sustain," she said.

Dr. Immordino-Yang suggests that the high demands on kids' attention that often occurs in today's society does not leave a lot of room for introspection, but introspection is important for self-development.

"Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about 'what happened' or 'how to do this' to constructing knowledge about 'what this means for the world and for the way I live my life,' " Immordino-Yang writes.

For example, one of the articles mentioned in Dr. Immordino-Yang's review involved 2,300 young adults in Canada who were studied for their texting habits.

The study found that those who were engaged in more text-messaging were slightly more likely to show prejudice toward indigenous people of their country and to rate physical attractiveness as an important personal value.

These high-volume texters also scored low on assessments of their moral reflection, such as having a lower motivation to promote social equality and justice in their community.

This study was just one example of many that lent evidence to the idea that constantly be in touch and not taking time to reflect could negatively affect social and moral development.

"As therapists, teachers, and parents who discuss the benefits of 'down time' well know, as does anyone who has had a creative insight in the shower, rest is indeed not idleness, nor is it a wasted opportunity for productivity," the authors concluded.

"Rather, constructive internal reflection is potentially critical for learning from one’s past experiences and appreciating their value for future choices and for understanding and managing ourselves in the social world."

LuAnn Pierce, a clinical social worker in Colorado, said the importance of introspection cannot be overstated.

"As the authors noted, it is that ability to critically think about things that happen or new learning that increase our levels of self awareness," she said. "Identifying how the new relates to previous experiences and beliefs happens as we consciously and unconsciously 'process' information — often resulting in the 'ah-ha' moment when things line up and make sense on a deeper level."

She added that downtime is just as important for when things don't line up too.

"Then we tend to ponder other scenarios, ask more questions and try to mold the new information or our previously held thoughts and beliefs to make sense of it," she said. "Other times we find the new and old can co-exist as two different realities. All of this requires the brain have some time to 'rest' from active engagement and let things sort themselves out."

The take-home message? Give your brain the gift of rest.

The study was published in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The research was funded by the Brain and Creativity Institute Fund, the Rossier School of Education and a grant from the Office of the Provost at the University of Southern California.

Additional funding to the researchers came from the National Institutes of Health. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 28, 2012
Last Updated:
September 3, 2012