Sun, Mar 30, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Hard at work while doing nothing

Understanding of what the brain does when at rest has changed significantly — yoga may not be the only way to still the mind

By Felicity Callard  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Tania Chou

Guidance on “resting your mind” is increasingly prominent in Western culture’s non-stop barrage of lifestyle instructions. We are exhorted to give our brains downtime, and reminded of the benefits of yoga, mindfulness and transcendental meditation. In an economic system preoccupied with squeezing value from employees’ minds as well as bodies, rest, we are told, can promote creative insights rather than merely signify lost productivity.

However, what are the criteria for judging if a mind is at rest? What accounts for the unevenness in people’s experiences of mental “rest”? Can we broaden the repertoire of practices that people use — beyond mindfulness training and yoga — to enable people to find rest in their everyday lives?

One area in which debates over what “rest” means for the mind has been particularly lively is neuroscience. Until recently, if you were to volunteer for a cognitive neuroscience experiment, the chances are you would be slid, supine, into a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, would come face to face with a simple cross-hair — and would be told to “do nothing” in between the psychological tasks you would be asked to carry out. This cross-hair is the way that cognitive neuroscientists traditionally access the brain and mind’s state of rest.

Little over a decade ago, mental activity during a phase of cross-hair fixation was treated simply as the baseline. The assumption was that the mind would rev up and out of its idling state in order to complete the tasks it was being set, and its activity could then be measured against this dormant “baseline” state.

But in the past decade this view of the resting state has been transformed. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that different parts of the brain display remarkably coordinated patterns of activity “at rest,” and that disparate regions in the brain are consistently more active when people are told to “do nothing.” Data and visualization techniques from resting-state cognitive neuroscientists, such as my collaborator, Daniel Margulies, have allowed the slow rhythms of these brain dynamics to be displayed as maps of connectivity. In a few short years, a brain that is “doing nothing” has become, for neuroscientists, a whole lot more complicated. Rest, at least in relation to the space inside our skulls, isn’t what it used to be.

As you might observe, your own mental experiences while “doing nothing” give the lie to the assumption that the mind shuts up shop when not focused on the world outside. The mind in so-called states of rest might be described as doing a whole host of complex things — whether engaged in “a meal at which images are eaten” —to use W.H. Auden’s description of the daydream — or building “air castles undisturbed” — to use Washington Irving’s account of reverie.

However, it has been hard to incorporate these rich subjective accounts of the mind’s activity when unengaged by the outside world into scientific models. After all, as soon as one attempts to probe the activity of mind-wandering or daydreaming, one has disturbed the very thing one is trying to study.

Psychological research on “spontaneous cognition” has in the past decade been reinvigorated. At the heart of these efforts are researchers such as Jonathan Smallwood, who has attempted to bring order to the fuzzy chaos of daydreaming. For Smallwood, the daydreaming state — far from being a lapse of attention — allows our species to transcend the here and now. It is therefore invaluable for important psychological attributes such as creativity, happiness and planning our future. In the space of a few years, then, understandings of what the brain is and does “at rest” have been transformed. Gone are connotations of idleness and stasis, to be replaced by an emphasis on industry, productivity and forward planning.

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