June 24, 2011
Chief Learning Officer
Natalie Morera

Getting out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary stimulates the brain, keeping it in good shape to learn.

Put on those sunglasses and go explore the new sights and sounds of an unknown territory during vacation – because it’s going to help the learning process.

The brain is interested in reconstructing environments and is always looking for the surprising, unusual or different, explained Michael M. Merzenich, chief scientific officer of Posit Science, a brain fitness programs company.

“You can say that taking a holiday is a little bit like going back to childhood, when the world was full of wonder and everything you saw was full things that you hadn’t expected or seen before, you had to calibrate it in your brain,” Merzenich said.

As people age, less and less attention is paid to details in the world. Therefore, keeping a childlike attitude is important — it’s one of the reasons children learn so much, he explained.

“It’s really important that we be challenged about that every so often, that we’re reminded to pay attention, that we’re really engaged again,” he said.

The brain is constructed to be alert and to go into a “special epoch” when what is seen is really interesting or surprising.

“One of the things that happens in your everyday life is that things can become so predictable, so controlled, and you can live a little bit of a dream-like life,” Merzenich said. “Our environments after all are constructed so that we are relatively rarely surprised by what’s happening in them.”

Routines that people develop can bring down their states of alertness, but every time a person takes a vacation to a place away from their immediate environment, it’s healthy.

“The more distant, the more different they are, the more full of surprises they are, the more wonderful that is, the more positive that is for our brain,” Merzenich said.

The brain controls learning while controlling how bright, alert and engaged a person feels. It tends to become activated the more it’s stimulated and exercised.

“Part of maintaining your basic vitality is contributing in a very fundamental way to sustaining learning rates,” Merzenich said. “In a sense, the more you engage your brain in ways that stimulate it, the more you’re doing to maintain your capacity to learn and to improve. It’s actually right at the heart of maintaining yourself in a fundamental sense.”

Though a vacation may feel like a break, it’s actually a time when the brain is most active.

In terms of how often a person needs a break, it really depends on the nature of the tasks they perform. Repetitive and dull tasks typically prompt the need to take breaks, Merzenich explained.

“If you look at some elemental learning exercises, the strongest learning actually happens in the first minute – after five or six or seven minutes, you’re actually waning,” he said. Every seven minutes or so, the learning efficiency actually decreases.

Ideally, individuals shouldn’t have to deal with the same type of tasks over and over again.

“If you really had enough variation in the kind of problems you’re trying to deal with or solve throughout the day, then you’re energized all day long,” he said.

Take, for instance, a February 2011 study, which found judges were more lenient to prisoners who appeared before them earlier in the day. As the day proceeded and lunch time neared, the leniency of sentences dropped until the judge took a break. Once the judge took a break, leniency went back up.

It doesn’t matter if the break involves eating lunch or jet-setting 1,200 miles away, the brain needs it.

“You could think also to encourage people to travel in their own environment by opening up their eyes and brains to the wonders that are actually out there all around them,” Merzenich said.

He recommends trying to reconstruct one’s neighborhood by memory and then venturing to see how much was detailed correctly.

“Most people are pretty surprised by what they didn’t remember or what they could not reconstruct mentally even literally in their own front yard,” Merzenich said.

Adults may not have enough moments to stimulate and engage themselves, but there’s a need to seek those opportunities out. It’s important for individuals not to sleepwalk through life, but instead to pay attention to the world around them – even if it’s not in a vacation setting.

“A lot of people can’t afford to travel as much as would be good for them to do, but they don’t really have to do that,” Merzenich said. “They can look around and live life again in the actual physical environment in which they live.”