Five scientific reasons why our brains need a break

Have you ever been stumped by a problem, decided to take a break, and then later found that the answer magically came to you in a burst of inspiration? Taking a break can help to refocus our minds, making us ready to tackle the challenges of working in an increasingly busy primary care sector

A ‘break’ is a ‘brief cessation of work, physical exertion, or activity’. You decide to ‘give it a rest’, with the intention of getting back to your task within a reasonable amount of time – but when you ‘give it a rest’ what part of your brain actually needs that break?

For ‘think-work,’ it’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the thinking part of your brain, according to an eye-opening blog by author Nir Eyal. When you are doing goal-oriented work that requires concentration, your PFC keeps you focused on your goals. The PFC is also responsible for logical thinking, executive functioning and using willpower to override impulses. That’s a lot of responsibility—no wonder it needs a break!

So, it’s clear that breaks can help you keep your goals in the spotlight; research also tells us that there are numerous other benefits to downtime. Of course, as everyone knows, breaks can bring you fun, relaxation, conversation and entertainment, but here we’ll focus on evidence that links periods of rest with greater work productivity.

As always, consider which of these ideas fits you—your personal work preferences, job rules and situation, energy level, priorities, goals and values. If your work habits already work for you, great; there’s no need to change.

Why Take Breaks? Here are five good reasons

  1. ‘Movement breaks’ are essential for your physical and emotional health. The benefits of taking brief movement breaks have been well-researched. Constant sitting – whether at your desk, in the lecture hall or watching the TV – puts you at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity. Getting up from your chair to walk, stretch, do yoga – or whatever activity you prefer – can reduce the negative health effects from too much sitting. Just one, five-minute walkabout-break in every hour can improve your health and well-being.
  2. Breaks can prevent ‘decision-fatigue.’Author S.J. Scott points out that the need to make frequent decisions throughout your day can wear down your willpower and reasoning ability. Citing a famous study, Scott notes that Israeli judges were more likely to grant paroles to prisoners after their two daily breaks than after they had been working for a while. As decision-fatigue set in, the rate of granting paroles gradually dropped to near 0% because judges resorted to the easiest and safest option—‘Just say no’. Decision-fatigue can lead to simplistic decision-making and procrastination.
  3. Breaks restore motivation, especially for long-term goals. According to Nir Eyal’s blog, ‘When we work, our prefrontal cortex makes every effort to help us execute our goals. But, for a challenging task that requires our sustained attention, research shows that briefly taking our minds off the goal can renew and strengthen motivation later on.’

    One study, Brief and rare mental ‘breaks’ keep you focused even suggests that prolonged attention to a single task can hinder performance. “We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” Professor Alejandro Lleras says. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam, or doing your taxes) it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”

  1. Breaks increase productivity and creativity; working for long stretches without breaks leads to stress and exhaustion. Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources and helps you become more creative. Research shows that ‘aha moments’ come more often to those who take walking breaks while other research suggests also that taking regular breaks raises workers’ level of engagement which, in turn, is highly correlated with productivity.
  2. ’Waking rest’ helps consolidate memories and improve learning. Scientists have known for some time that one purpose of sleep is to consolidate memories; however, there is also evidence that resting while awake likewise improves memory formation. During a rest period it appears that the brain reviews and ingrains what it previously learned.

Understanding why our brains need to take a break is only useful if it encourages you to take one. NHS Employers is clear that employers have a duty to ensure that staff take their breaks. For those staff whose work is repetitive, continuous or requires exceptional concentration, employers should provide regular breaks to protect their health and safety. It’s particularly important for those who deal with clinical data to take some time to unwind, reducing the potential for making any errors.

This edited article first appeared in Psychology Today.

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