Why spacing out while quarantining can be good for your brain

The worldwide quarantine has impacted mental health in indisputable ways. Aside from specific psychological and physical outcomes, from difficulty sleeping to worsening chronic conditions, many also share a ubiquitous feeling of malaise and a decline in cognitive stamina, known as “quarantine fatigue.” However, our extended period indoors may very well benefit our brains—not just during lockdown, but even after the pandemic ends.

For many of us, without daily activities and obligations such as commuting to work and taking kids to extracurriculars, this past year has been a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to experience being, rather than doing. Prior to the pandemic, many people could admit to living in chronic, low-grade stress as a result of constant movement; this is a neurological graveyard for creativity and inspiration.

Instead, a quarantine period has acted like the Jungian “heroine’s journey” (think of classic tales such as Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty) in which the brave woman on her journey toward achieving wholeness has a period of sleep and retreating into a cocoon. Indeed, neurologically, experiencing an enforced period of isolation can lead to greater successes and insights than trudging on without a pause.

Research on power naps, meditation, and nature walks have revealed how mental breaks can improve concentration, productivity, and memory, and encourage creativity, sparking that long-awaited entrepreneurial idea or simply the right thing to say to a friend in need. Chances are you have had at least one “aha moment” during the relative stillness and solitude of quarantine, whether discovering that you enjoy a midday workout (versus after work), devoting time to develop a long-time interest, or realizing the wonders of your city.

This may be why: The brain is never completely at rest. During wakeful periods when your brain isn’t focused on a particular thought or task, one of the core neural networks of the brain, the default network, is still activated. Even if your mind is not inputting external information from the senses, the brain is still at work, processing existing knowledge. As in a meditative state, it activates the default network for creative insights and a variety of neurological benefits.

This detached form of thinking, commonly called intentional mind wandering, lets your brain wander and go into free flow without focusing on one specific object. This makes wandering intentionally especially helpful for enhancing problem-solving abilities and generating and experimenting with new ideas. Unfocused free time allows the default network to relax around a problem and bring in more potential solutions to consciousness. The mind is able to engage in underutilized processes, such as free associating, and envisioning being in a different place or time (i.e. neurologically walking in someone else’s shoes), all without interruption from the outside world and focused external attention.

However, there is a right and a wrong way to embrace mental detachment. Engaging the default network mode in a beneficial way is not the same as drifting into involuntary daydreaming. This latter form of mindlessness is not restful or productive and includes indulging that nagging or negative inner dialogue; instances include tuning out through excessive TV-watching, scrolling on social media, and consuming alcohol. As we’re probably all aware, these emotional numbing mechanisms are valueless and make you feel slightly better in the moment, but worse as soon as they are over.

Instead, below are a few easily implementable, intentional wandering activities to try from home. These tips will help you engage the default network, better fuse ideas and ways of thinking together, and generate original and innovative solutions in the process—even potentially coming out of the gate stronger than before.

  • Clean up your space. Reduce distraction by removing clutter in your home. Physical spaces have mental effects, and keeping the spaces you spend the most time in clean and orderly eliminates attention-diverting visual cues and frees up mental space.
  • Space out. Let your mind wander, specifically when it comes to a problem or challenging situation that has been gnawing at you, or that you walked away from. Take dedicated time to simply muse on various potential ways to solve the challenge, and particularly the lateral ideas that may seem impossible. Quite often, the solution is already somewhere inside of us once we take some time to dive deeper.
  • Practice mindfulness. By opting to try mindfulness you can improve your intentional mind wandering and selective attention. A simple 10-minute daily breathing meditation is a great way to ground yourself and slow down racing thoughts. This opens the mind to new ideas while improving focus and the ability to register the usefulness of those new emerging thoughts.
  • Try mini digital detoxes. One place to start is avoiding screens for the first hour in the morning or for the entirety of each Sunday. While this may seem difficult to do with little other distractions or pastimes at home, research suggests that even small breaks can help release the stress that stems from constant connectivity.
  • Relax while journaling. Reflect on and contemplate the quarantine lessons that have been personal to your growth and development over the past year with certain prompts: (1) List 3-5 positive new habits or measurable changes that you have discovered during quarantine that will continue once the pandemic is over. (2) List 3-5 limitations that have been lifted from living in lockdown. (3) Analyze your self-identity. Did you used to primarily self-identify by what you did (for instance, I reached this number of deliverables at work this year) versus who you are (i.e. I am a father and vice president)? Has this definition changed, and do you know yourself better in any way?

Just like your body, the mind requires certain exercise for optimal brain health—and for this training, happily no equipment is needed, just time, space, and your own willingness to try. In a calendar year of what has felt like ceaseless bad news, here is the good: It’s fully within your power to leverage this moment to reap the cognitive benefits of reflection and stillness.

Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, executive adviser, author, and medical doctor. She is the author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.

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