Ever wondered what activity and rest look like from a brain perspective? This series, based on doing less, is all about gaining results from less work, less stress, and less time. It’s about understanding our bodies and listening to them and their subtle cues. Humans are complex beings, yet by spending a little time gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves, we can unlock knowledge that explains exactly why we do what we do, and most importantly, how to do it better. The following blog post is all about understanding what our brains look like in rest and in action. It explores why doing less with ourselves is amazing for our brain function and encourages you to find moments of ‘less’ throughout your day.
I’ve always been overwhelmed by the complexity of our brains. I’m a curious person and yet I’ve put off learning about my own body because the amount of knowledge out there simply swamps me. But in a journey to listen to my body more, and understand the language in which it communicates with me, I’m having to learn more about why our bodies do what they do and how we can support our bodies to perform at their best.
We all know our bodies require some simple things to function. Sleep, water, shelter and a bite to eat every now and then. But what if I told you that doing ‘nothing’ is also vital to our brains? When we allow our bodies to rest, or pause, we unlock a state which provides amazing opportunities for thinking, creativity, and brainstorming.
Our brains are never quiet. There is never a dull moment in that hum of electrical activity which sits behind your ears. In every moment, neurons are sparking and crackling. It doesn’t matter if you’re awake, asleep, in the midst of a creative state of flow or simply stressing about a presentation tomorrow. But reduced brain activity isn’t the goal here. Many of us are curious about how we can better support our brains to perform optimally. This is why I want to introduce the concept of ‘Task Positive’ and ‘Task Negative’ networks to you!
Task Positive and Task Negative Networks:
Have you ever been out walking and an amazing idea pops into your head? Perhaps you were at the park with your dog, or maybe you were walking to the kitchen for a refill for your coffee cup. When these moments of great creativity hit, I often wonder what it would be like to be able to produce great ideas like this all the time. Rather than having fleeting moments of pure brilliance, what if I could produce these amazing ideas on a more frequent and consistent basis?
I once heard that creativity isn’t something you’re born with. It’s simply something you learn. It is why we encourage our children to play freely and explore the world. And yet why do we never strive to improve our own creativity as adults?
Task Positive and Task Negative networks are stepping stones in understanding how we can unlock more of these moments of great creativity.
Let’s say you’re at work writing up a new report, or your planning out your latest project. Your brain recognising that this activity requires a lot of attention and you’re engaged in a goal-directed task. In response, your brain activity lights up in very specific regions, creating a lightning storm of activity. This is known as the Task Positive network. It represents energy flowing through the areas of the brain we use for listening, planning, analysing, problem-solving and decision making. Or as I like to call them, ‘the get-shit-done’ regions. This network is great for when you’re charging through your to-do list, completing your morning crossword or planning ahead for the week.
But at the end of the day when you sit back, look back up at the world around you and relax, a new network comes to life - Task Negative. While Task Negative isn’t going to help you study for an exam, it’s amazing for your imagination, and most importantly, creativity.
Compared to Task Positive, Task Negative appears more like New Year's Eve fireworks display in the brain. As if it’s in a state of free play, your brain is able to flicker and flow wherever it pleases and it often activates deep regions of the brain day-to-day activities ignore.
These are the moments where we spontaneously recall a great memory. We also fire up our imagination and have moments of pure creativity. And our brains also begin to day-dream, soul-search, and gain a deeper awareness of ourselves. We have moments of great moral and emotional sensitivity which many would describe this as intuition.
Learn more about brainwaves in our other blog post here!
This explains why our most creative ideas flow into our heads while we’re relaxing in the shower or out walking in nature. It’s why we meet great realisations when we’re taking the weekend off at the beach and why it takes a moment of walking away from your to-do list to come up with the greatest solution to a task.
Allowing your brain to break the cycle of continuous Task Positive network is what enables us to unlock some of our greatest creative potential. Walking away from your work, literally makes you better at working.
These networks, and transitioning your brain isn’t as simple as flicking the right switch. Our brain loves switching back into Task Positive network when even the slightest distraction hits. Which is why we must be purposeful about our moments of rest or ‘doing nothing’. I often find that in my moments when I’m supposed to be resting I worry about wasting time before I know it, I’m planning my afternoon or making calls to book appointments - anything to keep myself being productive.
I’m beginning to learn more about my body and my brain. I’m beginning to understand that this constant drive to action and productivity only leads to eventual burnout. However for me to have moments of great creativity, my brain can naturally perform better simply by my determination to rest and step away from my desk.
The best ideas and most novel solutions are often just elegantly simple combinations of factors that had not previously been noticed before. You may not be able to trace your thoughts from the problem to the solution.
This great creativity isn’t a path of textbook logic, it’s a sudden trickle of a thought which manages to be more powerful than hours of brainstorming.
The physical act of ‘doing nothing’ and finding space is the gateway for transitioning our brains from one network to the next. We cannot schedule, control or manipulate the negative network. We rest and let it do its thing.
But what does ‘doing nothing’ look like? It’s not sitting on the bus looking out the window while replaying a conversation from earlier. Or mulling over a previous decision. Or playing a game on your phone while you wait for a friend. By looking, tapping and responding, you continue to use the same parts of the brain used in normal daily tasks, so you are not idling. You are also keeping your Task Positive Network switched on if you stare at the work in front of you and try really hard to come up with a good idea.
What doing nothing looks like in the body: the psychological process
1. Detach your attention from what you are doing eg. sitting back, lifting your head, taking a deep breath
2. Relaxation throughout the body: activating your parasympathetic nervous system, lowering your blood pressure and heart rate, spreading a sense of calm and peace throughout the body
3. Task Negative Network comes to life
I encourage you to invite more moments of ‘nothing’ into your life. I encourage you to support your brain to function in a Task Negative network rather than driven relentlessly by Task Positive.
It’s as simple as finding small moments throughout your day to take purposeful rest.
Taking grasp of the small moments:
- standing up and walking away from a task, stretching your body and coming back to survey your handiwork
- going for a walk over lunch
- look out of the window on the bus
- sit in your garden and watch the shadows
These aren’t tasks that require a lot of energy. Simply remember what it was like to be a kid when you had the time to play freely after school. Think about how powerful and natural our imaginations were. Since when did we stop actively searching for creativity in our lives? Since when did productivity trump imagination and free play?
It’s all about finding a little space for the freedom to slip through. We must remember that it’s not all about how much we produce. This does not determine our worth. While work culture and the constant demand to work harder and longer drives our lives, we have the opportunity to stop and give ourselves the opportunity to be better and work smarter rather than harder.
By simply taking the moment to understand more about how our brains function optimally we have unlocked a great understanding about how to do more with less. And why we should be finding moments for ‘less’ in our daily lives, to enable us to accomplish ‘more’ and be ‘more’.
This week, let’s try to find moments of space every day. This may only be a few minutes in your break. But actively try to relax, and allow your brain to freedom to explore - it’s amazing what you’ll accomplish.
From my home to yours,
Hi there! Thanks for checking out the Live Lively blog. I am so excited to share my passion for productivity, personal growth and wellbeing!