The other weekend, while on vacation, something happened to my brain. Something quite nice really. While I was floating atop a paddleboard in the middle of a quiet lake with conifers swaying the breeze and gentle waves lapping against the board, my brain took a break. Instead of thinking of the many to-do lists I often need to accomplish or thinking about work, my thoughts floated here and there, I was able to daydream and I felt relaxed.
Needless to say, “vacation brain” felt great (as many of you already know!) and I wondered – how can I keep this good thing going when I get back to the “real world.” We all know vacation is good for us, as is taking time out and giving your brain a bit of a break. But what I wanted to know was what was happening to my brain while floating out there in that lake. What’s the magic behind daydreaming?
In a 2014 article in the New York Times, Dr. Daniel Levintin describes his research on two attentional modes of the mind referred to as task-positive and task-negative networks. Along with his collaborator, Dr. Venod Menon, Levintin explored how these modes were our brain’s way of keeping us balanced.
This is your Brain on Vacation
During the workweek we are focused and concentrating, our brain is using our task-positive network (TPN). The task-negative network (TNN) occurs when you’re doing something that doesn’t require as much attention and your mind is allowed to wander or daydream. This is the state of mind we often find ourselves in when on vacation. When we don’t need to focus on one task, but instead begin to relax, it’s not uncommon to begin to daydream and as it turns out, daydreaming can be just as beneficial to your mental health as learning to focus is.
The Importance of a Wandering Mind
When we let our minds wander we’re often doing ourselves a favor. Studies have shown mind wandering can lead to more concreteness and specificity in goals, increased creativity, decreased blood pressure, better working memory and can help you become a better problem solver. Levintin describes the wandering mind (TNN) and our focused mind (TPN) as a teeter totter, when the teeter totter goes up and down in a good rhythm our minds are balanced. If there’s an imbalance on the teeter totter we may end up with too much of either TPN or TNN and start to feel burnout or inability to focus.
Ways to Increase “Daydreaming Mode” and Keep that Vacation Brain Going!
Levitin points out that we are often inundated with information in our daily lives. Simply decreasing the amount of info you take in can help increase your “daydreaming mode.” In the time it’s taken you to read this article, how many times have you been distracted by your phone? Opened another tab? Maybe took a phone call or wrote an email? By bouncing back and forth between tasks, we make it very difficult to move from task-positive mode to task-negative mode. Simply put, we’re often too engaged. Levitin recommends scheduling certain times of day for these tasks rather than attending to them throughout the day. The more you organize your time, the more time you’ll have to drift off and daydream a little.
To increase the benefits of mind wandering mode, create opportunities to be distraction free. Set boundaries for yourself like, no cell phones after 7pm, or no tv while at the dinner table. Think of the things you do when you’re in vacation mode and do those to a lesser degree while at home. Take a nap, take walks, read a book, lounge on the couch. Give yourself permission to step away from work and some of life’s tasks for a little bit of daydreaming time!
Trust me, your body and your brain will thank you for it!
PS – Check out some of our other posts about vacations:
Boredom Blasters to keep your kid’s imagination busy all summer!
Even more benefits of vacation time! (If you haven’t gotten the hint yet, we kinda love vacations.)
Quick and easy ways to make time for YOU this summer.
How to creatively survive summer vacation your kids!