The Introspective Parts of Our Brains Are Getting Out of Shape
Researchers call it "hurry sickness": The more we overload our schedules, the more we strengthen the task-oriented network of the brain.
You woke up two hours before you had to leave for work and decided to go for a run. But then, well, it couldn’t hurt to check your email while putting on your running shoes, could it? Maybe you could tap out a quick response or two. After your run, you microwaved breakfast while reading texts. You haphazardly brushed your teeth while packing lunch and laying out your clothes. You finished your morning routine with five precious minutes to spare. So, you decided to see what emails you got in the past 90 minutes.
A routine like this isn't necessarily uncommon—especially among young professionals in modern workplaces. “The speed of life is much faster now than it used to be,” says Eva Redei, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern. “That generates this constant rushing.”
Of course, you probably didn't need a psychiatrist to tell you that. Working professionals are increasingly experiencing what's referred to as “hurry sickness.” We overload our schedules and rush from task to task. The ability to stay connected makes us feel obligated to respond ASAP to every text or email. We’re allergic to idle time because it’s time we could be using to tackle our monstrous and ever-growing to-do lists. We feel anxious and panicked about deadlines that don’t deserve panic.
“You’re just reacting to what’s in front of you and solving stuff and moving on,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at USC. “You’re training your brain away from being comfortable sitting quietly and introspecting.”
The emotional value of idle time
Feeling so rushed all the time can have consequences for your health. For one thing, it spikes your blood pressure and floods your body with cortisol. For all the trouble, you don’t even perform better at work. The constant obsession with every deadline hinders your ability to see the bigger picture. Rushing and multitasking never produces strong work. “Yes, you can chew gum and walk at the same time,” Redei says. “But intellectual multitasking is a myth.” The positive effects of idle time, meanwhile, are as compelling as the negative effects of stress.
There are two networks in your brain that work separately: the taskmaster network and the introspective daydreaming network. In 2001, neurologist Marcus Raichle and his colleagues examined people’s brain activity when waiting in an MRI machine compared to when actively completing difficult tasks. They found the brain’s core was much more activated when at rest. According to Immordino-Yang, certain regions of the brain’s core use more oxygen and glucose when daydreaming than the same-sized unit of leg muscle uses when running a marathon. “It’s extremely metabolically expensive,” she says. “The brain and evolution don’t waste energy on things that don’t have a purpose.”
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The default/daydreaming mode plays an important role in emotional development. Emotions such as inspiration, and admiration depend on the default mode. It also helps develop empathy, not for physical pain but for lasting social and psychological pain.
Jobs, family, and relationships take up time. The more we overload our schedules, the more we strengthen the task-oriented network of our brain. The introspective part of our brain, meanwhile, becomes out-of-shape. Constantly tackling tasks becomes the norm, and we become uncomfortable with idle time.
The goal-oriented network of your brain keeps you vigilant and on-edge, but the daydreaming network is calming, Immordino-Yang says. It’s almost like a natural meditation: If you constantly rely on the goal-oriented network, you train yourself to expect anxiety. Idle time feels painful, and you crave the instant gratification of getting something done.
“You feel like you accomplished something,” Immordino-Yang says. "But you don’t learn how to intrinsically build that calmer, more contemplative way of feeling good.”
Not surprisingly, phones and other devices aren’t helping. Having a phone in your pocket means you can always replace daydreaming with Instagram. Redei says the speed of TV advertisements alone makes us rush in our daily lives. “Speed brings a superficiality to our thinking,” she says. “It’s worse than before because we didn’t have the 50 different versions of messaging.”
How to slow down if you hate yoga and meditating
Slowing down takes training. Yoga and meditation are great ways to develop these skills, but they’re not for everyone. Luckily there are more practical alternatives. Redei suggests taking the two seconds to triage your emails and texts. Because we are constantly available with our phones, we falsely believe we have to respond to every message immediately. Distinguish between what is urgent and what is not.
“In this hyperconnected world, you need to set ground rules for yourself around the use of technology,” Immordino-Yang says. “Decide on whatever works for you.” Although there is no set formula, there should be regular times when technology is not part of your life.
There are ways to trick yourself into turning off the task-oriented network. Try to avoid multitasking. Go into nature whenever you can. A run or bike ride can help. Redei cautions against eating at your computer. “You have to have off time,” she says. “Even if you just do 15 minutes of exercise a day, nothing more, that will help.” She suggests stepping away from your desk a few times a day to stretch your legs.
If you’re more indoorsy, just schedule a coffee date with a friend and leave your phone behind. Be sure to listen and not just talk the whole time. “Whatever it is you like to do, set aside the time to do that in a way that it does not get interrupted,” Immordino-Yang says. This includes sleep, above all. “Unless you’re an emergency room physician and you’re on-call certain nights, everyone should always have their media off when they’re sleeping.”
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