We talk less about the importance of taking time off work than we do about eating well or being physically active. Our demanding lives and the performance culture we struggle to break away from mean that we too often ignore our signs of fatigue and persist as best as possible in our daily activities, whether we are workers or students. Difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation and mental wandering are part of our normality… However, numerous studies that have examined the consequences of depriving ourselves of rest and vacation time indicate that we put our mental and physical health at risk by ignoring these necessary periods of disconnection. That said, it’s not a matter of wanting to rest that will make our brains follow through… In fact, knowing the modus operandi of our minds is essential to being able to rest and recuperate intelligently. Since the question is vast and complex, here are some “bite-sized” tips on how to replenish your cognitive resources.
Take inspiration from the wisdom of athletes. The world of sports has long been known for the importance of rest, and we should take inspiration from it. In fact, any training program worthy of the name includes recovery periods — tapers, as they say in the jargon — which the trainer judiciously plans since they play a significant role in the athlete’s good form and performance. “Recovery is very well known in sports; it is not to be taken lightly. It is part of training. It’s not ‘nothing’. Rest ‘is’ strategic,” insists neuropsychology doctor Guillaume Dulude in his video Comment se reposer (réellement!), who is also a former competitive swimmer. He adds that “athletes who are not able to rest, even if they play less sport, tend not to be able to recover to their full potential before a competition.”
Know the “active mode” and the “resting mode” of the brain. Our brain functions in two major modes, two central mental states that each correspond to a network: the “executive network” and the “default network,” also called the “default mode network.” The first could be said to correspond to the brain’s active mode and the second to its resting mode.
We speak of “networks” since they are systems of neurons involving brain regions that may be distant from each other. Different hypotheses have been put forward to explain the basis of this process of going back and forth between the two networks. For some researchers, it could be an energy-saving strategy comparable to putting a computer on standby. In contrast, for others, it could be a way of maintaining minimal activation of certain neuronal connections to prevent them from disappearing. Still, other researchers think that this mechanism could help us better cope with any possibility.
Highly solicited brain regions. Based in the prefrontal cortex, the executive network manages our high-level cognitive functions, including attention, working memory, communication, planning, and strategy. It is this network that is activated when we engage in a specific cognitive activity. Along with it, another neural network called the “error detection system” is activated, involving the three brain regions of the anterior cingulate cortex, the amygdala and the insula. This system plays an essential role, among others, in the processing of emotions, which are inseparable from our cognitive processes.
Daily, all of these brain regions expend energy to help us achieve our goals. Our working memory and our error detection system are particularly solicited. The latter must constantly be alert to warn us when our strategies seem to be moving away from our goals. Add to this the fact that having to juggle several objectives that are all supposed to be equally pressing puts sand in the gears of our cognitive machine.
Half the time with the head in the clouds. Our executive network is thus, day after day, strongly solicited. However, we all know that our controlled and voluntary thoughts, which are governed by this network, frequently give way to what we might call spontaneous thoughts, daydreams or mental wandering. A 2010 Harvard University survey found that we spend almost half (46.9%) of our days “with the head in the clouds,” a state in which our brain is in default network mode. This is not the only functional network in the resting state, but it has the highest energy consumption and the most robust and most constant connections.
More focused, less tired. Being absorbed in a task without our attention being “split” or our mind constantly wandering is not in itself a source of fatigue, on the contrary. “By being totally involved in what we are doing, without trying to do several things at the same time, we also reduce the conflicts in the brain: there is no longer any doubt about what is important and what is not. […] There is no negative interference between brain regions involved in contradictory cognitive processes. The result is a feeling of calm: what is commonly called mental overload is reduced,” explains cognitive neuroscientist and attention specialist Jean-Philippe Lachaux. We can link this state of involvement to the state of flow, which is “a psychological state of deep well-being, intense concentration and motivation, which is reached when an activity constitutes a challenge perceived as being equal to or slightly superior to the skills we possess.”
Multiply the flow. If the state of flow can be reached by mobilizing specific skills or abilities, it is not limited to one type of activity. For example, cooking, reading or playing a musical instrument are all ways that can lead us to it, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist to whom we owe this concept. However, he sees “extremely strong similarities” between flow and one activity in particular: yoga. “In fact, it makes sense to think of yoga as a very well-planned flow activity. Both attempt to achieve a joyful, detached involvement with the self through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body,” he explains in his influential book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).
Keeping chronic stress at bay. In our hectic daily lives, the obligation to achieve results is less conducive to a state of flow than to stress and anxiety, both of which, if they become chronic, can seriously hamper our momentum. “When faced with a stressful event, the body produces stress hormones that are used to fight or flight. These hormones travel to the brain and have a marked preference for certain regions involved in learning, memory and emotional regulation,” explains Sonia Lupien, neuroscientist and director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress. And when a disturbing event occurs, all of an individual’s attention is captured by it, Lupien and her colleague Françoise Maheu report in their 2003 study. In addition, research on animals has shown that stress and anxiety can completely block the learning process.
As Dominique Servant, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist specializing in stress and anxiety, points out, fatigue is one of the “first signs of difficulty in adapting (negative consequences of stress) when the body can no longer “recharge the batteries.” This feeling of mental fatigue could also be partly due to a decrease in various neurotransmitters that have not had time to be synthesized again.
To fight stress on a daily basis, Sonia Lupien recommends cognitive microbreaks, the time to let our stress hormones diminish. “If I have trouble concentrating, I get up and walk the dog, for example. The cognitive micro-pause is essential, especially in these times of stress,” says the researcher.
Preventing feelings of helplessness. When fight or flight doesn’t seem possible, it’s the feeling of helplessness that threatens us. In his video Comment se reposer et décrocher du boulot?, Guillaume Dulude warns us that ignoring how the brain rests, the “rules” that must be respected for it to succeed, puts us at greater risk of experiencing this state. “When you overuse the same systems and therefore don’t have rest, you experience helplessness,” he says, adding that this feeling is one of the biggest generators of negative emotions in humans.
Biochemically, Dulude says that this heightened sense of helplessness affects not only our levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” but also our levels of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters that is among the most important for activating positive emotions, including being able to make choices, being alert, completing tasks and switching between them effectively, and quitting. While high helplessness is associated with inversely low serotonin levels, the neuropsychologist reminds us that “you need a minimal pool (level) of serotonin in the brain, primarily in the frontal and prefrontal lobes, [i.e.,] in the executive center…”
Beware of rumination… even at the beach. The Harvard survey mentioned earlier reported that the more we are in the clouds — thus in default network mode — the more we tend to be unhappy. On the contrary, the more we are invested in an activity, whatever it may be, the more content we feel. It is not uncommon for a healthy person’s network to become more excited than necessary, causing them to move from daydreaming to rumination, putting them at greater risk for attention disorders, anxiety and depression.
Jean-Philippe Lachaux encourages us to be vigilant to this effect while on vacation: “It is not necessarily restful to sit on a beach or in front of a mountain landscape if you spend all your time lost in past or future scenarios. […] By loosening the grip on our schedule and our mental activity, vacations leave more time for these moments of emptiness without a precise objective. This can be enjoyable, but be careful not to fall into the trap of rumination.”
Cultivate a healthy escape of the mind. In addition to trying to calm down one’s default network activity and let one’s executive network renew its depleted neurotransmitters, it would also be beneficial to cultivate a healthy escape of the mind. “There is growing evidence that this undirected thinking is crucial to consolidating one’s identity and giving meaning to one’s life. Unfortunately, in the daily grind, we are often too busy doing one task after another, which prevents us from indulging in what I call constructive internal reflection,” reminds neuroscientist and psychologist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (2012) in the Québec Science article “Le cerveau aussi a besoin de vacances.” According to her, the brain’s flexibility to switch from executive mode to default mode and vice versa and the robustness of the default network connections are linked to a greater sense of well-being.
Ideally, then, our time off should not only be used to “take our minds off things” or “move the problems around”; it should also allow us to reflect more deeply and constructively on ourselves.
Meditation to the rescue of Homo Modernus. Fortunately, most of us can keep our default network from overheating. Studies have shown that meditation, especially mindfulness meditation — a form of meditation in which one focuses on one’s breathing and inner state — can reduce activity in the default network (Garrison et al., 2015), strengthen its connections (Zeidan et al., 2010), and promote executive function and sustained attention (Valentine and Sweet, 2007; Zeidan et al., 2010). And the benefits may be felt after only a few weeks or even days of practice.
However, it is essential to know that you may find yourself more and more invaded by your thoughts if you try too hard to chase them away. “It’s not a matter of blocking your thoughts and going blank… that doesn’t work,” confirms Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who has been practicing meditation for decades and is involved in neuroscience research on the impact of meditation on the brain and health. In meditation practice, the proper stance is instead to “let thoughts pass like birds flying through the sky.” Easier said than done! But with practice, everything is possible, since the brain, at any age, has this capacity to modify itself following new learning; a property that is called “neuroplasticity” and which translates into the creation of new neuronal connections (see 3 Ages of the Brain Under the Microscope of Neuroscience).
The intermediate-level vacation prescription. In addition to making meditation a part of your lifestyle, there are specific criteria that we should follow when choosing a vacation activity. Jean-Philippe Lachaux recommends “having one thing to do and one thing only, within a reasonable time frame and without excessive focus on our performance.” He suggests opting for a type of mental activity that he calls “intermediate,” such as Sudoku, crossword puzzles, simple walks, colouring and other creative hobbies. “Of course, the mind sometimes wanders into thoughts, but it is regularly brought back to its main task. The vacations are then an opportunity to do only one thing at a time, without obligation of result, and this is perhaps their secret. A brain at rest is not so much an inactive brain (it is impossible), as a brain totally involved in its current activity, without any other perspective”, adds Lachaux.
To recover fully: solicit another system. According to Guillaume Dulude, the chosen activity must take our mind out of its routine and be planned for the brain to truly recover. “In a strategy of rest, of vacation, we must “strategically” make sure that we do not solicit the same cognitive structures, the same reflexes, the same systems of thought, the same habits that we normally use when we work, when we spend energy,” explains Dulude. For example, a person who works in a caregiving position and whose listening and empathy mechanisms are very solicited will have to turn to an activity that does not solicit those mechanisms or solicits them little, such as a sporting activity, to recharge.
The essential game plan. If Guillaume Dulude insists on the importance of a strategic approach, it is because, without a conscious and planned effort on our part to break our habits, the brain tends to reproduce the behaviours that it knows well and that have earned it a reward, i.e. a reinforcement in the form of a dopaminergic discharge. “It’s not that simple, because the brain likes it, it’s used to getting its dopamine in a certain way and often when we officially go on vacation, we feel like doing the same things as when we’re not on vacation,” says the neuropsychologist.
Remember that dopamine, which acts as a neurotransmitter, is sometimes called the “happiness hormone.” So when we try to achieve a long-term goal for which we don’t get immediate satisfaction, our body knows that it will at least get an intense dopamine rush at the finish line.
Passive activity, superficial rest. Be careful! Going out for a drink, eating at a restaurant or going to the movies doesn’t work, since these activities are passive, warns Dulude, pointing out in his video Le repos et la diversification des intérêts that this is also one of the reasons why the activities we often favour on vacation are not those that provide adequate rest. “Anything passive or exogenous doesn’t work. I’m not saying don’t do it; I’m just saying that the brain won’t relax in the same way because it’s too easy ‘consumption.’ So anything that is consumption, that is, external reinforcement, anything that is psychotropic, will give a short-term superficial rest, but it will not recharge you. There will not have been enough depth in the fact that the brain has deactivated in a task”, he specifies. We must therefore opt for activities that require genuine involvement on our part.
Diversify your interests and learn. Helping our brains to “recharge” paradoxically requires effort. This effort can be challenging for those who tend to invest in a single activity… which is often, moreover, their professional activity. This prompts Dulude to recommend that, as part of an overall strategic approach to rest and healthy living, we also diversify our interests: “For me, this is a central theme. People who, for different reasons, have invested in few areas in their lives, who are extremely good at something but have little diversification so that they can give a lot of energy in one area, get to the point where when the battery is burned out, it’s ‘burned out’… it takes a long time before it recharges. We see a lot of that in counselling.”
For those who are put off by the idea of having to step out of their comfort zone to get to rest, the neuropsychologist suggests going gradually, with the best strategy, he says, being to explore activities that may have tempted us before, but that we haven’t had a chance to try yet; to see the prospect as a gift, an opportunity to try something new. “The brain loves it: novelty and learning, it’s the best resourcing strategy there is,” concludes Guillaume Dulude.