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Why ‘downtime’ is time well spent

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Scientists have discovered regions of the brain they call “the dark network” (in the frontal, parietal and medial temporal lobes) that turn off when our conscious minds are on and light up when we seem to be switched off.

When we appear to be doing nothing— waiting, idling, daydreaming —our dark network flips on, shooting ahead to the future or back to reflect on the past. It’s not where you are when you’re herding employees or signing checks. It’s where your mind goes when you’re standing in the shower; when you’re not consciously present or in the moment.

Why do our brains do this? It’s because “experience is a terrible thing to waste,” say two psychology professors studying the phenomenon. People trapped in the present include those with Alzheimer’s disease, who can’t synthesize their experiences or plan ahead.

Checking on the past and visiting the future are valuable gifts, like flight simulators for life experience. To use another metaphor, time travel via the dark network lets us pay for a bad experience only once, and mentally traveling forward helps us avoid bad experiences.

And now for the real surprise: We spend most of our time on the dark network, so much so that neuroscientists actually refer to it as the default mode for our brains.

So what does it all mean?

Simply this: When you’re performing mental gymnastics, like calculating next year’s budget or appraising a vendor’s proposal, that’s the logical world, the here and now. You probably overestimate the amount of time you spend there because you don’t notice when you leave. But it’s good to leave that place now and again.

Bottom line: Give yourself distinct times to focus hard, and ample time to let go without stressing out about it. Downtime is more important than you think.

—Adapted from “Time Travel in the Brain,” Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner, Time.

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