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Break to breakthrough

What should you do when your brain seems to have maxed out?

What do you do when it seems your brain has maxed out? It appears counter-intuitive, especially when the pressure's on, but stepping away and taking a break is likely to be the best way to get back on track.

We ask a lot of the brain. We expect it to concentrate and think whilst it keeps us safe by unconsciously processing a constant stream of input from the external environment not to mention regulating our bodily functions.

But just as you cannot push a machine relentlessly without some form of failure, if we ask our body to perform with no recovery time then our performance, mood and health can suffer.

It should come as no surprise then that sometimes it feels like our brain has stopped operating.

I am sure you can relate to this

You have been working steadily, your focus has been spot on and then it isn’t, your brain seems to have maxed out. You try to push on but you’re stuck, your mental ability or processing power seem to have run out of steam.

It’s about this time that we might get a coffee, eat something sugary, distract ourselves with email or even all of three.

The wiser ones among us step away.

I know one guy who leaves his desk to stroll an office corridor, another who disappears into the fire escape to meditate and a woman who slips out to walk around the pier where she works.

They may not know why these timeouts benefit them yet each are unconsciously doing something that revives cognitive function.

They are effectively switching on the brain’s natural, refresh programme; a function that spontaneously arises whenever we are awake but not actively focused on an attention-demanding task (1).

"We need to incorporate ‘off time’ into our working patterns. We need to understand that ‘on’ is impossible without ‘off,’ and that the distance between the two needs to be made closer: like the beats of a heart or the steps of a runner.” Tom Gibson

Rest is not idleness

In neuroscience parlance this refresh programme is called the “default mode”. But don’t start thinking that when the brain is in default mode it’s on standby, far from it.

Various parts of the brain become active (the default mode network) whenever we take a break from paying attention that are not “on” at other times, even when we blink (2, 3).

Indeed, neuroscientists have known since the 1930s that electrical activity in the brain is pretty similar whether a person is in a resting state or performing complex maths (4, 5).

Although the purpose of this function continues to be debated in research circles, it is associated with the laying down of memories, making sense of situations or relationships, consolidating information and self-understanding.

What is not debated is that the DMN is critical for the resting state of the brain.

3 big break gains

Whilst it seems counter-intuitive to take a break, especially when you’re up against it, it’s exactly what’s needed to breakthrough the impasse.

By doing so you harness the power of the default mode in the following ways:

1. Enable the Aha! moment

We tend to have Aha! moments, such as remembering something or solving a complex problem when we are not pressing ourselves to do so. This might be while we are showering, cooking or walking, those times when we are not focused on a demanding task. In other words when the brain has switched over to default mode.

History tells us of famous Aha! moments too. Isaac Newton found his answer in an apple orchard whilst Archimedes was in a bath and Poincaré was stepping onto a bus (6).

By taking a break and coming off task, we allow the brain to knit together complex ideas and return new insights (7).

2. Restore creative thinking

Research has found that our ability to think creatively is conditioned by our motivation. If we are trying to avoid something, we are likely to set off the body’s fight or flight response which is known to shut down the executive thinking part of the brain and so limit our cognitive function.

A study asked participants to guide a cartoon mouse through a pen and paper maze. To test the impact of motivation, in one version of the puzzle (approach) a piece of cheese was depicted at the exit, whereas in the other (avoid) an owl was hovering.

After solving the maze, they were asked to do a creativity task. It was found those who had been helping the mouse find the cheese were twice as creative as the group that had been fleeing the owl. According to the researchers, the cheese and the owl scenarios had set off the participants’ seek reward/avoid harm instincts (8).

If you are tempted to push on when the brain seems to have stopped performing, it is likely you are being motivated to avoid something uncomfortable – missing a deadline, letting someone down, being late home etc.

Taking a short break from the attention-demanding task will allow you to come back in the creative, approach mode.

3. Make the better decision

To make decisions we weigh up options; over a period of time, our mental energy gets drained from the effort spent weighing trade-offs. This is called decision fatigue.

An example of this phenomenon is a well-known study that showed that parole judges made poorer quality decisions later in the day. Researchers analysed more than 1,100 decisions made over the course of a year. They found that judges tended to approve parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated throughout the day.

Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time even if they had been convicted for the same crimes and had the same ethnicity as those whose cases were heard in the morning.

Breaks were found to be relevant factors in determining decisions. The fresher the judges were, the better quality of decision (9).

Instead of going from task to task and back-to-back meetings, try taking a 5 minute recovery break to ensure you come with unencumbered perspectives and unclouded judgement.

Most things work again if you switch them off for awhile

We may think we can keep going no matter what but even machines have downtime - regular, scheduled time when they are serviced and repaired.

Whilst I don’t like to use a machine analogy when it comes to human beings, it’s common to compare the brain to a computer. In thinking of it this way, we might consider recovery breaks as a means to give the system a reboot.

Times when we are not actively focused on or engaged in the outside world switch on the default mode network, providing us with mental downtime.

Think of it as an act of self-care.

Take care of you.


1. Lin, P. et al. (2017) Dynamic Default Mode Network across Different Brain States. Sci. Rep. 7, 46088; doi: 10.1038/srep46088 (2017)

2. Tamami Nakano et al. (2013) Blink-related activation of the resting network Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2013, 110 (2) 702-706; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1214804110

3.Hattori, S., Yoon, T., Disterhoft, J. F. & Weiss, C. Functional reorganization of a prefrontal cortical network mediating consolidation of trace eyeblink conditioning. Journal of Neuroscience 34, 1432–1445, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4428-13.2014.

4. Kaplan, Robert. (2011). The Mind Reader: the Forgotten Life of Hans Berger, Discoverer of the EEG. Australasian psychiatry : bulletin of Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. 19. 168-9. 10.3109/10398562.2011.561495.

5. Ingvar D. H., (1979). Hyperfrontal distribution of the cerebral grey matter flow in resting wakefulness; on the functional anatomy of the conscious state. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 60, 12-25

6. Falk, D., (2005) Great Eureka! moments in history. University of Toronto Magazine.

7. Immordino-Yang, M.H. et al. (2012) Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education Perspectives. Perspectives in Psychological Science 7(4) 352—364 DOI: 10.1177/1745691612447308

8. Friedmann R.S and Forster J., (2005). Effects of Motivational Cues on Perceptual Asymmetry: Implications for Creativity and Analytical Problem Solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American Psychological Association 2005, Vol. 88, No. 2, 263–275

9. Danzieger et al., (2000). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. PNAS April 26, 2011 108 (17) 6889-6892


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