Why spacing out is good for you

A wandering mind reaps benefits you might not imagine.
Ana Galvañ illustration

TK Ana Galvañ

Constantly cramming knowledge and experiences into your brain may seem like the quickest path to self-optimization. But sometimes the best thing you can do for your noggin is absolutely nothing at all.

Taking time to space out—whether by showering, pulling weeds, or petting a dog—provides an opportunity for what psychologists call wakeful rest. The brief interludes allow for inward attention, a time when you can put immediate tasks like how you’ll meet that work deadline on hold and instead focus on current feelings, reflect on the past, and contemplate the future.

In these voids, MRI brain imaging shows a collaborative patchwork of gray matter called the default mode network takes control. Neuroscientists still don’t completely understand how this system works, but they think it connects dissonant parts of our brains, which can help us find meaning in our chaotic lives. This clarity might also reduce anxiety, boost creativity, and improve memory, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

The trouble is, life’s endeavors leave little room to let your mind wander. Many spend their free time consuming entertainment, which may feel relaxing but requires brainpower to enjoy. Fortunately, there are ways to encourage your default mode network to take over:

How to do nothing

These pro tips will help clear your head.

Find your bliss: Casual hobbies that don’t overlap with your day job can help prevent out-of-office anxiety.

Get away: New surroundings give your brain a break from environmental cues, like the sight of your desk and laptop, that tell it to work.

Switch off: Notifications can be too tempting to ignore. Turning off any and all devices helps maintain relaxation mode.

This story appears in the Winter 2020, Transformation issue of Popular Science.