With summer winding down, it’s worth asking why America leads the world in unused vacation days – about 429 million per year. The answer might lie in half of your brain not playing seesaw.
Americans are famous for piling up unused vacation days and then feeling guilty when they do take time off. They worry over emails piling up at work. They fear being out of touch, so they stay in touch with the office. Daniel Levitin says it’s not healthy.
Levitin is a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind. He describes our brains as having two modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network. Task-positive is active when you’re narrowly focused on work. Neuroscientists call it the central executive. Task-negative is active when your mind is wandering. It’s the big-picture daydreaming mode. Levitin says these two networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is at rest.1
Seesaw has led to some of the greatest discoveries in history – most occurring during daydreaming. The mind-wandering mode makes “connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected,” writes Levitin. Henri Poincaré discovered non-Euclidean geometry by getting out of the lab and taking a ride on a bus. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me.”2 His brain had teeter-tottered from narrow focus to being broadly attentive. Albert Einstein unlocked the mysteries of electromagnetic field equations by daydreaming about light beams.
These two modes of attention overlap with the findings of Iain McGilchrist, a researcher in neuroimaging. In The Master and His Emissary, he writes how the brain’s hemispheres are supposed to operate in a reciprocating fashion. Playing seesaw requires reciprocation. The right hemisphere does this. It’s “broadly vigilant,” looking at things from a distance and seeing the big picture. The left side prefers staying on the ground. It’s “narrowly focused,” writes McGilchrist. The feft assumes increased focus yields increased results. Left to itself, it doesn’t play with the right. It doesn’t play seesaw.
As chief executive, the left lobe likes workers to focus. It views daydreaming as too much fun – wasteful in the workday. According to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere rules the Western world, explaining why America leads the world in unused vacation days. The left thinks linear – work non-stop for eight hours, play later. This attitude was augmented by industrialization, where the US was an early leader. The industrial workday established work as non-stop from 9-5.
The good news is that findings from neuroscience indicate working non-stop for eight hours has outlived its usefulness. The active processing capacity of the left hemisphere is limited. People who work overtime reach a point of diminishing returns. “Taking breaks is biologically restorative,” writes Levitin. “Naps are even better. In several studies, a nap of even 10 minutes improved cognitive function and vigor, and decreased sleepiness and fatigue. So do regular vacations without work.”
Innovative companies take these findings seriously. I was in New York City recently, visiting with a colleague who offices at wework (www.wework.com). At this “community of creators,” innovators take regular and periodic breaks throughout the day – playing games, enjoying a beer, listening to music, reading a novel, watching a short film, or participating in a roundtable. They work hard and play hard. It’s a dynamic as ancient as the Old Testament, where work and play go hand-in-hand (Prov. 3:12-26 and 8:12-31).
I grew up enjoying the music of The Moody Blues, including their hit, “Ride My Seesaw.” That’s what the right hemisphere says to the left. When the playful right lobe leads, the linear left responds and the brain seesaws, spurring new insights. If companies take this seesaw seriously, American workers might begin taking many breaks – mini-vacations – throughout the day. They might even begin redeeming some of their 429 million unused vacation days.
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1 Daniel J. Levitin, “Hit The Reset Button in Your Brain,” The New York Times, August 9, 2014.
2 Jonah Lehrer, “The Eureka Hunt: Why do good ideas come to us when they do?” The New Yorker, July, 28, 2008, pp. 40-45.