Photo of a light switch saying 'off'
The brain's 'default mode' when we rest and daydream helps build character while enhancing learning and memory

Kids and adults need time to unplug and switch off

17 July, 2012

Natural Health News — The pace of modern life can be punishing.

There are so few moments when we are not ‘on’ – computers, emails, phones – and on the move.

Stillness and reflection may be hard to come by, but a recent study suggests that the long-lost art of introspection – even daydreaming – is an important counterweight to the rapid pace of modern life.

Writing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, scientists from the University of Southern California and Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyse the existing data from neuroscience and psychological science, exploring what it means when our brains are ‘at rest.’

Introspection triggers our ‘default mode’

Several recent studies have explored the idea of rest by looking at the so-called ‘default mode’ network of the brain, a network that is suppressed when we are resting and inwardly focused, say the researchers.

This accumulated data suggests that the networks that underlie a focus inward versus outward are interdependent.

While outward attention is essential for carrying out tasks and learning from classroom lessons, for example, the reflection and consolidation that may accompany mind wandering is equally important, fostering healthy development and qualities of self-awareness and moral judgement, as well as aspects of learning and memory.

Back to school

Lead researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang a psychological scientists at the  University of California, believes that research on the brain at rest can yield important insights into the importance of reflection and quiet time for learning and this in turn may require a re-think of how and what we teach our children

“We focus on the outside world in education and don’t look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts,” says Immordino-Yang. “What are we doing in schools to support kids turning inward?”

“Balance is needed between outward and inward attention, since time spent mind wandering, reflecting and imagining may also improve the quality of outward attention that kids can sustain,” she adds.

Mindfulness in the classroom

Immordino-Yang and her colleagues argue that mindful introspection can become an effective part of the classroom curriculum, providing students with the skills they need to engage in constructive internal processing and productive reflection.

Research indicates that when children are given the time and skills necessary for reflecting, they often become more motivated, less anxious, perform better on tests, and plan more effectively for the future.

And mindful reflection is not just important in an academic context – it’s also essential to our ability to make sense of and find meaning in the world around us.

The need to switch off

In their paper the researchers suggest that the high attention demands of fast-paced urban and digital environments may be systematically undermining opportunities for young people to look inward and reflect, and that this could have negative effects on their psychological development. This is especially true in an age when social media seems to be a constant presence in teens’ day-to-day lives.

They write: “Consistently imposing overly high attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about ‘what happened’ or ‘how to do this’ to constructing knowledge about ‘what this means for the world and for the way I live my life’.

According to the authors, perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from research on the brain at rest is the fact that all rest is not idleness.

While some might be inclined to view rest as a wasted opportunity for productivity, the authors suggest that constructive internal reflection is critical for learning from past experiences and appreciating their value for future choices, allowing us to understand and manage ourselves in the social world.