Down Time – The Healthy Mind Platter

Daily Life, Neuroscience, Theoretics

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Downtime – Disconnecting for integration and insight

When explaining “down time” in workshops we found that this is the most counterintuitive component of the Healthy Mind Platter and needs quite a bit of explaining. “Down time” does not correspond with “leisure time” exactly, which is a much broader term which may refer to hobbies and sports. in the Healthy Mind Platter hobbies are more likely to come under “focus time” and sports under “physical time”. With down time we refer to a very specific type of “activity”: inactivity, or doing absolutely nothing that has a predefined goal. Think of down time as literally being un-goal-focused. Hanging out, being with one’s surroundings, being spontaneous, having no particular goal or focus, as one might do on a lazy sunday morning with no plans. Down time is more about “being” in the moment with spontaneous emergence of whatever activity may or may not arise rather than “doing” a pre- planned activity with a goal or preset agenda.

We have many words in our vocabulary that seem to refer to down time such as idling, hanging around, loafing, lazing, goofing off and chilling out. These terms suggest that down time is not very well understood nor highly regarded. in our definition, down time is actually intentionally having no intention, of consciously engaging in doing nothing specific or “preplanned,” a process of disconnecting from intended directions and surrendering to daydreaming, letting our minds wander off in no particular direction with spontaneity and freedom. Downtime may occur between activities: while waiting for an appointment or an airplane, while listening to music or sifting through a magazine, that is, if we do not really pay sustained, focused attention to what is heard or written. If we consciously choose to spend down time, we might find a comfortable chair, in the comfort of our living room or in the shadow of a tree, and disconnect from an intentional, linear focus on our environment. During those periods of down time, we do much more than slumber, rest, and go “offline.” During the “inactive” state of wakeful rest or daydreaming, the default neuronal network (or task-negative network) activates. This mode has been found to be characterized by activity in the medial temporal lobe (for memory), the medial prefrontal cortex (for theory of mind and sense of self), the posterior cingulate (related to autobiographical reflection), and the lateral parietal cortex (for integration).

Researchers have shown that insight is preceded and aided by disconnecting from deliberate, goal-directed, conscious thinking. In many ways, down time permits a sorting through of many disparate elements of our mental lives, permitting a process called integration – the linkage of differentiated parts – to naturally unfold. The research of Dijksterhuis and his colleagues found that unconscious thinkers outperform conscious analysts when making complex decisions. A meta-analysis confirmed that across many studies, unconscious thought produces better decisions than when people decide immediately using conscious, logical reasoning. unconscious thought leads to clearer, more integrated representations in memory. What has long been dismissed as reverie and distraction now turns out to be a necessary precursor of insight in complex decision-making. Recent research is showing that not just any “distraction” works, though. Maarten Bos and his colleagues found that “distraction with a goal” produced better results than “mere distraction.” A break in the attentive activity devoted to a problem – also referred to as “incubation” – may eventually facilitate the solution process. Research shows that a break from close, focused, effortful attention improves performance with insight problem-solving, and that its length does not make a difference.

In their book The Break-out Principle, Benson and Proctor explain that the best way for solving thorny issues or complex problems is first to struggle with it, through problem analysis or fact gathering, up to the point where one stops feeling productive and starts feeling anxious and stressed. This is the signal for the second step: “distracting” oneself from the problem. There are many ways of doing this, including visiting a museum, taking a hot shower, or listening to some calming music. According to the authors, the key is “to stop analyzing, surrender control, and completely detach [oneself] from the stress producing thoughts”. This typically leads to what the authors call “the breakout”: a sudden insight or a new perspective that sheds a whole new light on the problem at hand.

“…down time is actually intentionally having no intention,
of consciously engaging in doing nothing specific…”

The very fact that unconscious thought and incubation time is conducive to better decision-making and insight has profound implications for self-leadership. under pressure of deadlines, quarterly results and shareholders, incubation time is squeezed out of the system, and so is the essential juice of creativity. Caught up in the rat race, laboring under the pressure of demanding objectives, creativity is pushed out of the equation. in this age of the knowledge and service economy, regular breaks on a daily basis, weekends, or on a monthly basis, and sabbaticals on a long-term basis, should not be viewed as a luxury at all. such breaks are needed to sort and integrate important elements of our minds and permit creativity to emerge. Organizations need “positive turbulence” to build continuous renewal into their cultures and develop supportive cultures that foster creative behaviors in employees.

Whereas analytical thinking requires an increase and maintenance of (visual) attention, insight is characterized by less focused, inward-directed, more open forms of attention. We propose that down time moderates the relationship between previous knowledge/experience and the generation of new insights. Not just any down time, idle-time, or daydream-time will do. it is important that our brain disconnects and “un-focuses” from the task at hand and its millions of distractions to connect with something entirely different as a condition to have insights on a whole different level. insight, contrary to analytic thinking, is fast, and manifests as sudden awareness or understanding. Sternberg and Davidson define insight as a “sudden comprehension that can result in a new interpretation of a situation and that can point to the solution to a problem.” in the light of the previous paragraphs this “suddenness” is misleading. it is the result of previously collecting the pieces of the puzzle, and time to let them connect in new and perhaps more integrated ways nonconsciously; new assemblies that are outside of awareness.

Psychologists have been studying insight for nearly a century, but more recent advances in neuroscience are demonstrating that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales. Bowden and Jung-Beeman propose that semantic activation in both hemispheres cooperatively contributes to problem-solving, but weak solution activation that contributes to the “aha- experience” is more likely to occur with neural activations in the right hemisphere than in the left hemisphere. The right anterior cingulate cortex is involved in directing attention to detect weakly activated, nonconscious solutions. Kounias suggest that the activity observed in ACC prior to insight may reflect increased readiness to monitor for competing responses, and to apply cognitive control mechanisms as needed to (a) suppress extraneous thoughts, (b) initially select prepotent solution spaces or strategies, and, if these prove ineffective, (c) subsequently shift attention to a non- prepotent solution or strategy. such shifts are characteristic of insight.

“We can intentionally cultivate a positive atmosphere while
encouraging the development of mindfulness to stabilize the mind…”

Understanding the precursors of insight is important, as it may point at interventional opportunities for the facilitation of insight. For instance, subramaniam, Kounios, Parrish, Jung-Beeman, and Bowden found that people are more likely to solve problems with insight if they are in a positive mood. Jill Bolte Taylor’s fascinating tale “My stroke of insight” clearly describes how the right hemisphere is “open- minded and thinks out of the box. It’s not limited by the rules and regulations established by my left mind that created that box”. This right brain is present in the moment, and integrates and nuances thoughts as the left-brain constant chatter is silenced. segal goes one step further, stating that “the default state has a large emphasis on stimulus-independent thought – mind-wandering, chatter that cannot be cut off – and the deviation from that to a place where people aren’t controlled by ongoing internal speech is a place where people are able to find some calm and respite”. Ian McGilchrist notes that the right hemisphere contributes to a way of being that senses context and the interrelated whole nature of reality whereas the left focuses on text and the individual parts that comprise the world. Downtime may permit integration across the hemispheres and in particular enable the less vocal and assertive right hemisphere’s synthetic processing to be sensed and expressed.

The relevance for leadership of understanding the antecedents of insight is great as it is a process that from a neurological point of view is extremely cost effective. It allows connecting very diffuse information in a “moment of genius” where everything becomes suddenly clear with relatively little effort. Such intuition allows experienced managers to make decisions much more quickly which in times of constant change is an enormous advantage. Certain decisions, like buying or selling stock, depend on so many interrelated and complex factors which are in constant flux that using sequential, analytical cognition alone will not suffice. Managers do not always have the opportunity to scrutinize all information, weigh in on all options with conscious deliberation and think through all solutions. Their “bounded rationality” and limited time forces them to trust their more intuitive, sudden insights. Based on what we are learning from the neurosciences, we need to be more cautious in creating the proper conditions for insight. We can intentionally cultivate a positive atmosphere while encouraging the development of mindfulness to stabilize the mind, quiet the internal chatter, and block out external distractions so that what emerges spontaneously can be seen clearly. With intention, we can invite people to respect nonconscious thought and incubation time and enable genius and “thinking outside the box” to bubble up from the wells of experience and relaxation.

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Source: NeuroLeadership Institute.

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