Why you should do almost nothing, more often

Updated: Mar 30, 2019

Imagine sitting in a room for 15 minutes with nothing but your thoughts to keep you entertained. This could be harder than you think. Researchers from the University of Virginia found that 67% of the men they tested and 25% of the women couldn't do it. In fact, they gave themselves a mild electric shock in order to avoid being left alone with …themselves.

Now think about a young person alone in their bedroom, or waiting for a bus, or sitting in a group when there’s a lull in the conversation. The ‘danger’ of being left alone with their thoughts looms large and, just like the people in the study, they reach for a distraction. Happily, it’s rarely self-shocking. Less happily, they’re likely to reach for a device which is packed full of psychological tricks, developed by thousands of the cleverest minds of our time, designed to keep them hooked for as long a possible. Yep, it’s called a smartphone.

But should we, or they, care? I think we should, but maybe not for the reasons you think. The thing is, I want to defend boredom and daydreaming. Neuroscience is unfolding a fascinating story about this downtime. It started with the almost accidental discovery of the brain’s ‘default mode’. That’s a system of interconnected brain structures which become active when we’re not focused on a particular task. It’s the brain in its resting state, except it isn’t resting at all: it’s busy processing autobiographical memories. This is when we tell ourselves stories about who we think we are based on our remembered experiences. The default mode also involves social cognitive processes, where we manipulate and think through scenarios predicting how other people will respond. That helps us to develop our ability to read and understand other people.

It’s not hard to see how important this is to all of us but especially to teenagers who are more intensely focused on developing their sense of identity and their ability to interact with others. All of that good stuff is effortlessly swiped away by picking up a smartphone and checking the endless streams of stuff about other people, or other peoples’ cats. But the good news is that just five days away at a camp with no access to screens significantly improves children’s skill in reading and understanding other peoples’ emotions. In other words, with carefully orchestrated school trips we can fill-in some of the skill-loss from lack of default mode day-dreaming.

Then there’s creativity. If focusing on a task is like using a spotlight, daydreaming is like turning on a bare light bulb in a cluttered attic, revealing all kinds of unrelated flotsam and jetsam. Daydreaming allows the brain to scan widely across apparently unrelated thoughts, looking for strange and interesting connections. That’s why boredom is linked to greater creativity. And it’s why the 25 most highly connected nodes during creativity tasks include twelve nodes from the brain’s default mode network.

So why can’t we just tell young people to leave the smartphones alone for few hours? If you’ve ever tried, you know it’s not that simple. I've already discussed some of the powerful forces at work in keeping us glued to smartphones, such as variable ratio reinforcement. And yet there's evidence that young people actually want some enforced time away from screens. A recent UK government report on the impact of social media use on teenagers highlighted the fact that many children enjoy school-wide phone bans because it gives them an enforced break from their smartphones safe in the knowledge that they’re not missing out because everyone else important to them is on the ban too.

If we educate young people about the pitfalls (that go along with the benefits) of smartphone use, maybe we could encourage group-level temporary smartphone rejection with informed friendship groups habitually turning off smartphones when they’re together. Maybe it’s also a reason for keeping the school-wide smartphone ban enforced for the whole day, rather than relaxing it at break and lunchtimes. Maybe we could even encourage young people to avoid filling up all of their down-time with smartphone swiping when they're alone, allowing themselves time to think creatively, to think about their day, their life, their place in their social world.

If you're interested in the default mode network this is worth watching