A few weeks ago, my husband and I both noted an article in the New York Times Week in Review section called “Hit the Reset “Button in Your Brain.” The authors argued the need for a true vacation from work. In other words not one like President Obama had where according to a news report I heard he talked to at least 9 foreign leaders and held at least 4 press conferences. This would be in addition to the normal routine of daily briefings, etc. Some of the rest of us call work and read email while ostensibly on vacation. They argue
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.
So what helps us reset and overcome the overload?
Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.
Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment. Music, for example, turns out to be an effective method for improving attention, building up self-confidence, social skills and a sense of engagement.
I suspect that by moving to Vermont with cleaner air, quiet, and lots of space to walk and appreciate nature even within a few blocks of our house, we have hit our reset buttons. Being able to sit on the screened in porch and watch daylight fade as I did last night or taking a walk to see the stars tonight provides time to think and reflect. We did try to do this in Boston by walking around Jamaica Pond for example, but even there you could hear traffic. I used to walk over to Boston Harbor at lunch and look at the water. These are urban dwellers solutions which people in cities can employ. But they need to do so without cellphones and other devices.
I know it is a privilege to be able to retire to a place where we can so easily hit reset.
Illustration by Matthieu Bourel