“When you pay attention to boredom it gets unbelievably interesting.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn
In our busy culture, the more you do, the more you’re validated. But being idle is not a sin. Even forced idle time, like that boring meeting, can offer value. No, really. A host of scientific studies now show that idleness is indispensable for health and well being.
This Scientific American article, Your Brain Needs More Downtime, covers the research to date showing that a relaxed, idle, daydreaming or even bored brain, is an active and necessary part of optimum performance, productivity and creativity.
The reason? An undercurrent of circuitry, known as the default mode network (DMN), gets stimulated only during these times of R&R. In research done by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California, her team purports that the DMN activates “psychosocial mental processing, for example, when recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral connotations...and psychological functioning, including associations with mental health and cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking.”
Meaning, your brain is making important connections without you actively knowing it, but it needs you to rest in order to get this work done. Rest can mean sleep, and many studies have shown the importance of a good 7-8 hours in better processing and learning about a day’s information.
But it also means pure idle time and even boredom. That meeting that runs over and cuts into your day, could actually lead to good thinking. University of Louisville Professor and boredom expert Dr. Andreas Elpidorou, in his article The Bright Side of Boredom, defines the value of boredom this way: “...boredom motivates the pursuit of a new goal when the current goal ceases to be satisfactory, attractive, or meaningful to the agent. Boredom helps to restore the perception that one's activities are meaningful or significant. It acts as a regulatory state that keeps one in line with one's projects.
Not only is it key for motivating one toward goals and meaningful activity, it is also the precursor of creativity. A paper presented at the Annual Conference at the British Psychological Society outlined two studies that revealed that boredom in subjects brought forth daydreaming and innovative connections that lead to more creativity.
If all this amazing brain-juice doesn’t inspire you to sit still for a bit, consider the benefits to the body. This New York Times piece, Relaxation: Surprising Benefits Detected looks at the research supporting the physiological benefits to deep relaxation, which include a strengthened immune system, regulation of stress hormones and improved tolerance of pain.
And it’s not a placebo effect, all this relaxing is changing your genes. A new study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) finds that, “elicitation of the relaxation response -- a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer -- produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.”
While the positive brain benefits of boredom and idle time, can be seen after drawn-out meetings or time gazing at the ocean, the required idleness for both body and mind benefit comes in four distinct forms or practices.
Jacobson's Progressive Relaxation: This one involves mentally going around the muscle groups in your body, first tensing then relaxing each one.
Autogenic Training: It is actually just another technique for progressively relaxing the muscles, but this time with an added mantra which gets repeated as you go through muscle groups. Typical mantras talk about “heaviness and warmth.”
Applied Relaxation: Basically, this is just a technique that skips the tensing up of Jacobson’s Progressive Relaxation. Muscles are relaxed on a simple cue that you associate with relaxation, such as “Relax Now.” The idea is that this will help, with practice, reach a relaxed state quickly in a stressful situation.
So, next time you need a break, really take one. And try not to worry about that idle time on the train or at your boss’ drawn out meetings. You’re building a better brain. And if you go to yoga and meditate after work, you’ll be building a better body too.