Your Brain on Vacation: 11 Proven Benefits of Taking Time Off
July 11, 2012
Your brain works hard every day, regulating your breathing, controlling your heart rate, helping you shout answers at the TV while “Jeopardy” is on. Isn’t it time you gave it a rest? Sure, you could zone out for a few minutes and take a so-called “brain vacation,” but then you risk making all your other organs jealous. Allow us to give you the incentive to book that trip you’ve been debating taking to the Bahamas: your brain reaps terrific benefits like these when you shut the office down and check out.
We’re sure we don’t have to tell you taking time off from stressful work makes you feel less stressed. But you may have only suspected the corollary benefit, which is that your performance goes up after a period of no stress. A study by doctors at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York found that in rats and medical students, test results were much lower for tests taken during periods of high stress. But given time to let that stress dissolve, the subjects scored much higher.
If you can afford to take your vacation abroad, you’ll receive the added benefit of kick starting your creative juices. Research by Northwestern University professor Adam Galinsky and INSEAD business professor William Maddux found that travel abroad helps people overcome “functional fixedness” by forcing people to adapt to new cultures and ways of doing things. However, the boost in creativity was found to be more significant in people who lived abroad, as opposed to brief visitors, so the longer you can stay, the better.
Kids may look forward to hiking, fishing, riding roller-coasters, eating junk food, or any number of other fun activities that don’t get to do at home. But for many adults, the best thing about vacation is sleep. And sleep has a number of brain benefits and can even physically impact the brain for the better. A UC-San Francisco study with cats proved sleep helped create more brain change after an environmental stimulus. And during deep sleep, the brain reorganizes connections to the most optimal arrangement.
Dopamine is one of the “happy hormones” produced by the brain that plays a number of roles, but especially factors into learning. Dopamine is released when we experience something new (as we do during a vacation) and helps form memories. Dr. Russell Poldrack, of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin says that participating in such new activities can even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Although science cannot yet explain the entire process for what causes depression, it is known that at its root, depression is a brain problem. It is believed that the chemicals the brain uses to communicate are out of balance in people with depression. It has been proven, however, that vacations help the brain fight depression. For example, a 2005 study conducted at Wisconsin’s Marshfield Clinic found that women who don’t take regular vacations are two to three times more likely to be depressed than women who take them regularly.
In addition to increased dopamine, vacation also causes your brain to up its production of serotonin. Although too much serotonin can cause problems, a good amount of it is crucial for emotional stability and even a person’s social life, as high serotonin levels predispose people to a positive outlook and a friendly demeanor. Could this explain why it’s so easy to make friends while you’re on vacation?
A 2006 study out of New Zealand discovered that after a vacation, people had a 25% quicker reaction time in the brain, eyes, and muscles on average, and as much as an 80% improvement in some cases. And that was after a vacation that lasted as little as two or three days. The boost was attributed to the better-quality and longer-lasting sleep that travelers get on vacation.
This is actually an overall health benefit, but it begins with your brain. Dr. Tony Massey says that even small stressors like trying to talk on a cell phone and drive in traffic cause your brain to go through chemical changes: your brain begins outputting signals to your body that make you feel hungrier and crave calories, especially empty calories. So getting away from stress on vacation can actually help you keep your weight down.
In addition to allowing you more free time to work out, virtually every vacation involves exercise you wouldn’t normally get, like carrying luggage, running to make a flight, walking around sightseeing, and more. And of course, the brain benefits of exercise are well-documented. Aerobic exercise strengthens your mind’s ability to plan long-term, coordinate multiple tasks, and stay focused longer. So while laying on a beach for a week is good, mixing in a hike, bike ride, surfing lesson, or golf outing is even better.
According to Baylor neuroscience professor David Eagleman, adults tend to compress memories, which results in the feeling that time is going faster than it really is. The way to combat this perception is to take a vacation somewhere you’ve never been before, “essentially putting you — neurally — in the same position as when you were a child.” And who doesn’t want to feel like a kid again?
The amount of time children spend in front of video screens is higher than ever. Although too much time staring at TV and computer screens is not good for anyone, it is especially damaging to children, whose brains are still developing. Experts are saying children are risking dependency on screen time due to over-exposure, and they worry that the brain could be permanently rewired after too much computer game time. Leave the laptops and portable DVD players at home, and vacations are a great way to give your kids’ brains a much-needed screen time break.