I had an intense quarter at school where I was studying and working pretty much all the time. Over winter break, I had many grand intentions of studying on my own and learning what I wanted to learn. However, I found that I had trouble focusing and had some other "burnout" like symptoms. Several people suggested that I "rest my brain", or rather, rest all break and don't do anything too mentally demanding so that I was ready to go next quarter.

Is this a good idea? Is there scientific support behind the idea of "resting one's brain" for a significant period of time (like a few weeks)? Or could it actually be harmful?

  • 2
    This may be a good Q to migrate to the newly-in-public-Beta Biology SE
    – user5341
    Dec 27 '11 at 14:24
  • 4
    @DVK: Burnout is a subject that get's more studied by psychologists or doctors. I don't think it has any business being in the Biology Stack Exchange.
    – Christian
    Dec 27 '11 at 14:55
  • Not relevant to a college student or the timeframe of a few weeks, but at the extreme of "could it be harmful," it is said that mental activity may help defer or protect against Alzheimer's (2ndary citation at webmd.com/alzheimers/news/20030618/alzheimers-mental-activity). So you ought not rest your brain for decades at a time, no matter how many shows you have on your Tivo. Dec 27 '11 at 18:19
  • 2
    Without significant time spans, I can assure you, that I take a period of resting my brain every night, and I heard, that there is a form of torture, which avoids this resting breaks. How long are the periods where you need resting your brain? Once per week, month, year? How intensive is your daily brain usage - how to measure it? - before you need resting at all? What constitutes a resting phase? The question is too vague, and can't be answered, imho. Feb 7 '12 at 23:58
  • Related: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/4315/…
    – Sklivvz
    Feb 10 '12 at 23:30

The answer seems to be in some cases that taking a break can help. Various studies have shown increases in productivity and focus after doing something that requires very little concentration after spending a lot of time on a a task that required a lot of concentration.

Other studies have shown that taking a break can have little effect while other studies show differences in results based on what you do during the break.

A study done at the University of Illinois showed that breaks were effective.

From Brief and rare mental ‘‘breaks’’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements:

We asked observers to perform a visual vigilance task while maintaining digits in-memory. When observers retrieved the digits at the end of the vigilance task, their vigilance performance steeply declined over time. However, when observers were asked to sporadically recollect the digits during the vigilance task, the vigilance decrement was averted. Our results present a direct challenge to the pervasive view that vigilance decrements are due to a depletion of attentional resources and provide a tractable mechanism to prevent this insidious phenomenon in everyday life

- Link to study on Pubmed


A 2005 study drew a distinction between goal driven tasks and stimulus driven tasks. Since mental fatigue had little effect on stimulus orientated tasks then the effect from fatigue could be largely related to perception.

From Effects of mental fatigue on attention: An ERP study:

In summary, the effects of mental fatigue on behavior seem to a large extent to be caused by an inability of fatigued subjects to allocate their attention efficiently. However, a distinction must be made between the effects of mental fatigue on goal-directed and stimulus-driven attention. Goaldirected attention is shown to be negatively affected by mental fatigue, while stimulus-driven attention was largely unaffected. These results account for both the increased distractibility as well as the decrease in flexibility that is characteristic of fatigued people. When behavior becomes 114 M.A.S. Boksem et al. / Cognitive Brain Research 25 (2005) 107– 116 increasingly stimulus-driven, salient stimuli in the environment will have a greater influence on behavior. At the same time, goal-directed control over behavior will decrease, causing behavior to be guided more by automatic stimulus response couplings, resulting in a reduced behavioral flexibility.


A study done at Stanford seemed to indicate that perception and/or emotional state could be more of a factor in mental efficieny than any potential benefit from a rest. From Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation

Much recent research suggests that willpower—the capacity to exert self-control—is a limited resource that is depleted after exertion. We propose that whether depletion takes place or not depends on a person’s belief about whether willpower is a limited resource. Study 1 found that individual differences in lay theories about willpower moderate ego-depletion effects: People who viewed the capacity for self-control as not limited did not show diminished self-control after a depleting experience. Study 2 replicated the effect, manipulating lay theories about willpower. Study 3 addressed questions about the mechanism underlying the effect. Study 4, a longitudinal field study, found that theories about willpower predict change in eating behavior, procrastination, and self-regulated goal striving in depleting circumstances. Taken together, the findings suggest that reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion.


A study in 2008 seemed to show an improvement in attention depending on what was done on the break time. Students who walked through an Arboretum, improved their short-term memory by 20 percent, but showed no improvements after walking down city streets.

From The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature:

We compare the restorative effects on cognitive functioning of interactions with natural versus urban environments. Attention restoration theory (ART) provides an analysis of the kinds of environments that lead to improvements in directed-attention abilities. Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.We present two experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities as measured with a backwards digit-span task and the Attention Network Task, thus validating attention restoration theory.


The studies indicate that in some cases taking a break was shown to have beneficial effects leading to increases in attention and short memory. Other studies indicated that perception and attitude can play an important role as well as what was done on the break. It's also important to keep in mind that the studies were limited to student populations which may not be a good representation of the wider population.

It's safe to say that for some people, taking a break can have benefits although it isn't possible to say that as a general rule taking a break will have benefits given the important role perception and attitude seems to play.

  • @CaseyPatton out of curiosity, why didn't you award the full bounty? What was wrong with my answer? Feb 21 '12 at 4:30

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman says that short-term fatigue effects are real in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

[A]n effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion. ... [T]he idea of mental energy is more than a mere metaphor. The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose. ... [Describing an experiment on this:] On the other hand, the glucose drinkers were not depleted. Restoring the level of available sugar in the brain had prevented the deterioration of performance.

In another chapter, he argues that effort-ful mental activity (what he calls "System 2" thinking) draws from a single-bank of energy and establishes that when you've depleted that resource doing one activity, you have a hard time doing another effort-ful mental activity. (In other words, if you do math, and then you write something, and then you go back to math, your "math battery" won't have recharged.)

Whether these effects are relevant at the level of days or weeks is not addressed.

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