Students, writers, entrepreneurs, home educators—anyone whose work requires sustained mental attention—will benefit from a mind that’s undistracted, rested, fresh and alert. Whether you’re called on to be creative, think on your feet, or to take good notes and recall them later for work or for a test, you’ll perform better if you refresh your mind.
This post (updated in September 2015 from the original 2007 content) offers several ways we can experience mental refreshment. Some of these suggestions will work better for someone who needs the refreshment of a little intellectual stimulation, while others will suit someone whose mind is on overload and needs to be refreshed through intellectual rest.
Refresh Your Mind When It Needs a Break
Long stretches of studying, writing, creating, or working on building a business leave our brains overstimulated, overtaxed, full and frazzled. On those occasions, we need a mental break. The following methods help temporarily clear away distracting thoughts to find mental refreshment.
1. Monotask vs. Multitask
To refresh your mind when it needs a break, stop multi-tasking. Research says multi-tasking causes our brains to be less efficient and focused because rather than doing two or more things at the same time, we’re actually toggling back and forth from one thing to another. “Humans…don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.” This NPR article continues:
“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” [neuroscientist Earl Miller] said.
“You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”
Miller said there are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks. One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain.
“Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time,” he said.
One big way to refresh the mind: simplify from multitasking to monotasking or unitasking.
2. Listen to Calming, Steady Music
The Mozart Effect has been debated and by some experts claiming faulty research procedures, debunked. Still others claim music does indeed increase productivity. It sounds like you can decide for yourself after listening to music if it calms your mind (some say baroque and other music paced at about 60 beats per minute will work well).
3. Take a Mini-Break from Work or Study
Entrepreneurs offer their methods for changing things up, such as heading out on a bike ride, taking the dog for a walk, or holding a walking meeting. The mind needs periods of rest, even if they are short, to enter “the default mode network (DMN).” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors explain:
[W]hen we are resting the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics—processes that depend on the DMN. Downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned, to surface fundamental unresolved tensions in our lives and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself…. When it has a moment to itself, the mind dips its quill into our memories, sensory experiences, disappointments and desires so that it may continue writing this ongoing first-person narrative of life.
Michael Taft recommends “deliberate mental breaks during ‘all the in-between moments’ in an average day—a subway ride, lunch, a walk to the bodega.” So get up, stretch, and walk around.
4. Take a Nap
Ten to twelve minutes may be the ideal length for a power nap that leaves the mind most alert. The National Sleep Foundation recommends a bit longer—20-30 minutes—for short-term alertness. “This type of nap provides significant benefit for improved alertness and performance without leaving you feeling groggy or interfering with nighttime sleep.” If you have time, a 90-minute nap moves through an entire sleep cycle.
5. Take a Vacation
Sometimes our minds need a longer break to get the rest and refreshment they need. Though it seems counterintuitive, productivity increases with rest. An article in The New York Times explains, “[S]trategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health…. [T]he greater the performance demand, the greater the need for renewal. ”
6. Get outside
This article from the National Park and Recreation website talks about how outdoor recreation can offer mental restoration, and Dr. Andrew Lepp, assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism management at Kent State, observes that the mind will benefit from outdoor recreation’s “psychological benefits, including the prevention or reduction of stress; improved self-esteem, confidence and creativity; spiritual growth; and an increased sense of exhilaration, adventure and challenge from life.” Go for a walk around the neighborhood. Try hiking, if you’re physically capable. Go biking or canoeing. Find a park and walk a trail. Toss pebbles in a stream.
Psychology Today reports, “Neuroscientists have discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels.”
The researchers found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function. Interestingly, reading fiction was found to improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports.
The researchers’ evidence suggests, as reported by ABCNews.com, that “simply reading a good novel can keep that enhanced ‘connectivity’ working for days, and possibly longer, after we have finished the book.”
8. Find friends
Phone a friend—or two, or three friends. Spend time together. Human interaction seems to keep our minds refreshed. Social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman claims “relationships are a central—though increasingly absent—part of a flourishing life.” He “sees the brain as the center of the social self. Its primary purpose is social thinking.” I’m a writer—a rather solitary pursuit. I find that time with friends keeps me mentally alert—interacting with them, I often generate new ideas for books and articles. They ask good questions and get me thinking. Friends are essential to a refreshed and refined mind.
9. Meditation and Prayer
The Mayo Clinic recommends meditation as a way to reduce anxiety and stress on the overtaxed mind. Prayer and study of scriptures can refresh the mind, as well. The University of Minnesota, writes, “The word ‘prayer’ comes from the Latin precarius, which means ‘obtained by begging, to entreat.’ Prayer is rooted in the belief that there is a power greater than oneself that can influence one’s life. It is the act of raising hearts and minds to God or a higher power.” Among other mind-refreshing benefits, they cite “positive feelings” of “gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and hope, all of which are associated with healing and wellness,” and a mind-body-spirit connection, claiming “when prayer uplifts or calms, it inhibits the release of cortisol and other hormones, thus reducing the negative impact of stress on the immune system and promoting healing.”
Refresh Your Mind When It Needs Stimulation
Many of us find ourselves in a mental slump, in need of intellectual stimulation—a different kind of refreshment than that needed by the overtaxed mind. Those who are staving off the effects of aging on the brain or those who are trying to sharpen their mind to balance activities required of them throughout their work day can try the brain-building, brain-stimulating activities suggested below.
1. Music to Stimulate the Mind
We touched on music to calm an anxious mind craving restful refreshment. If you need mental stimulation, however, you can also listen to music. Scientists found that people may receive more than a sensory reward from listening to music. They also gain “a direct intellectual one too—even if they’re not aware of it. The nature of that reward, Salimpoor believes, based on this and earlier research, has to do with pattern recognition and prediction. ‘As an unfamiliar piece unfolds in time,’ she says, ‘our brains predict how it will continue to unfold.” The article continues:
[S]omeone raised on rock or Western classical music won’t be able to predict the course of an Indian raga, for example, and vice versa. But if a piece develops in a way that’s both slightly novel and still in line with our brain’s prediction, we tend to like it a lot. And that, says Salimpoor, “is because we’ve made a kind of intellectual conquest.”
Combine music with exercise and you may experience even more enhanced cognitive benefits. Making music is extremely beneficial to the mind, as well, so pull out that old piano primer or dust off your guitar.
2. Drink Water
Drink water throughout the day to help refresh the mind, but especially first thing upon waking. After several hours of sleeping during which we have no fluid intake at all, our brains benefit from a big glass of water when we get up. Chris Bailey of A Life of Productivity points out that our brain tissue is 75 percent water. “When you’re not properly hydrated, your brain operates on less fuel, and you can feel drained, or experience fatigue or mood fluctuations to awaken and energize the mind, drink a glass of water.” Dr. Joshua Gowin writes at Psychology Today, “Our brains depend on proper hydration to function optimally. Brain cells require a delicate balance between water and various elements to operate, and when you lose too much water, that balance is disrupted. Your brain cells lose efficiency.” He continues:
Years of research have found that when we’re parched, we have more difficulty keeping our attention focused. Dehydration can impair short-term memory function and the recall of long-term memory. The ability to perform mental arithmetic, like calculating whether or not you’ll be late for work if you hit snooze for another 15 minutes, is compromised when your fluids are low.
To refresh and enliven the mind, drink water.
3. Drink Coffee
In a health publication from Harvard Medical School, Stephanie Watson writes, “If a study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition is any indication, the caffeine in coffee might offer not just a momentary mental boost but also longer-term effects on thinking skills.” The study went on to show that people, especially those aged 70 and older, “who took in more caffeine scored better on tests of mental function.” If you enjoy and can tolerate the caffeine, it appears that coffee can energize the mind, but drink in moderation. The Mayo Clinic warns there’s a limit. More than 500 to 600 mg a day can cause side effects like insomnia, restlessness, fast heartbeat and muscle tremors. Each person is different, so pay attention to your overall response if you drink caffeine.
4. Eat Right
Everyone’s talking about superfoods, so I’m adding a mind diet to the list of ways to refresh and energize the mind. Rush University Medical Center recommends the MIND diet to stave off Alzheimer’s. Dr. Martha Clare Morris and her colleagues developed the “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay” (MIND) diet. “The study shows that the MIND diet lowered the risk of AD by as much as 53 percent in participants who adhered to the diet rigorously, and by about 35 percent in those who followed it moderately well.” You can see simpler, shorter lists of foods that aid in cognitive function for a smarter, healthier brain at WebMd and Huffington Post. Avocados, berries, salmon, nuts, and dark, leafy greens often make it onto these lists—fried foods never do. Even if you’re young and not yet concerned about age-related brain diseases, eating healthier will result in a more energized and alert mind.
5. Physical exercise
Lots of articles explain how physical exercise benefits not only our bodies, but also our minds. I know that when I walk, jog, or pull out my hula hoop and start spinning it around my waist, my mind clears and engages—I get ideas and solve problems. When a few days pass with no aerobic exercise, I get a little fuzzy. In addition to all its other benefits, physical exertion stimulates and refreshes the mind.
6. Mental exercise
With increased interest in health and wellness for an aging population, research into slowing dementia and Alzheimer’s has resulted in tons of tips for mental stimulation as well as brain-building games and techniques. This article in The Washington Post reviews websites with games purporting increased mental stimulation. (Another article from The Washington Post talks about both physical and mental exercise.) Happy Neuron seems to have consolidated some interesting games, and Lumosity has become well known as a brain-training, brain-stimulating program. Look around. You’re sure to find some fascinating activities—even the search itself might count for a bit of mental exercise.
7. Be Curious
Refresh your mind by being curious. “Curiosity is the engine of intellectual achievement—it’s what drives us to keep learning, keep trying, keep pushing forward,” writes Annie Murphy Paul. She cites George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, who claims curiosity arises, “when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.” Curiosity is a driving force in my life, key to my passion for lifelong learning, critical to my writing process, and essential to keeping my mind refreshed—so much so, I document and publish a monthly Curiosity Journal to share my intellectual discoveries.
Laughter offers a range of benefits such as improving your mood, exercising the brain, and masking the brain. In a way, laughter could belong in both categories, as something to both relax and energize the mind, freeing your thoughts from the intensity of study or work, and energizing the mind that needs stimulation to stay alert. Dr. Thomas Crook writes in Prevention magazine:
[R]esearchers at the University College London Institute of Neurology found that as study subjects tried to understand verbal jokes, areas of their brains important to learning and understanding were activated. This means that as your brain wrestles with the meaning of a clever punch line, it’s getting the same kind of workout it would from a brainteaser.
A good knee-slapper also produces a chemical reaction that instantly elevates your mood, reduces pain and stress, and boosts immunity (suppressed by both stress and pain).
Tell some jokes, laugh till you cry, and find your mind restored and refreshed.
Tend To Your Mind
Whether your mind needs refreshment in the form of a break, to refuel after a mentally demanding stretch, or in the form of stimulation, to keep synapses firing strong to stave of cognitive decline, tend to the mind to keep it refreshed.
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