If you're a regular exerciser, you're no doubt familiar with the feeling of physical fatigue. Go for a run four days in a row and on the fifth day your usual easy loop suddenly feels like a near-death experience. Your body is simply out of juice.
A lot of us are currently experiencing something similar with our minds.
The past two years have been a lot for everybody. Then, rather than ending in a defined period of relief and celebration, the pandemic has kind of halfway petered out and been supplemented by inflation, war, and travel chaos. My mind, at least, often feels like my legs do if I run too many days in a row. Concentrating is hard, decision making is foggy, and willpower is beyond low. My brain is begging for a good rest.
What's the best way to reset an exhausted brain? If you have the kind of life that lets you get away entirely for days, weeks, or months, power to you (and that might be more possible than you imagine). But this column isn't really for you. This column is for the parents with kids whose needs never take a break, the entrepreneurs whose businesses don't slow down even when their brain is melting down, the high performers who can't let their teams down by stepping away just now.
What you need is an actually doable way to rest and reset your brain that doesn't involve weeklong silent retreats or a beach in Bora Bora. And, handily, science has a suggestion -- soft fascination.
The Goldilocks point of brain stimulation
Just as running exhausts our muscles, focused attention can exhaust our brains. "Scientists have known for some time that the human brain's ability to stay calm and focused is limited and can be overwhelmed by the constant noise and hectic, jangling demands of city living, sometimes resulting in a condition informally known as brain fatigue," The New York Times reported before the pandemic. The constant jangling demands of living through the pandemic certainly hasn't lessened anyone's brain fatigue.
What you need is to give your brain a rest from effortful concentration and stress without boring yourself silly or opening the door to harmful ruminations with a blank mind. There are plenty of ways to approach this -- adult coloring, meticulous hobbies like knitting and baking, and various forms of mindfulness come to mind -- but according to science one activity beats them all for resting your brain: spending time in nature.
Being outside in a natural setting captivates us but in a general way. There is always something fascinating and beautiful for our attention to drift toward, but nothing demands our full focus. Scientists have dubbed his state of meandering, positive attention "soft fascination" and found that it has amazing powers to revive an exhausted brain.
"Scientists theorize that the 'soft fascination' evoked by natural scenes engages what's known as the brain's 'default mode network.' When this network is activated, we enter a loose associative state in which we're not focused on any one particular task but are receptive to unexpected connections and insights. In nature, few decisions and choices are demanded of us, granting our minds the freedom to follow our thoughts wherever they lead. At the same time, nature is pleasantly diverting, in a fashion that lifts our mood without occupying all our mental powers; such positive emotion in turn leads us to think more expansively and open-mindedly," explains science journalist Annie Murphy Paul in her book The Extended Mind (quoted on the great Brain Pickings blog).
Recent research has found that experiencing "soft fascination" by walking through a local park or whiling away some time observing a stream, physically quiets the brain. While other studies show time spent in nature can increase creativity, reduce stress, and help reset a fatigued mind.
Not all rest is created equal
The takeaway here is both obvious and profound. The solution to brain fatigue is, unsurprisingly, rest, but a very particular kind of rest is best. To reset your fatigued brain, you don't need another Netflix binge or exciting weekend activity. You don't want to distract your brain or shut it off. Instead seek out the middle path between boredom and engagement that scientists call "soft fascination." And the easiest way to enter this super restful state is to spend even a little more time in nature.