Less is More When It Comes to the Brain

Most of us have been taught to push our brain hard in order to get the most out of it. Yet, research is finding that some of the ways the brain goes about making us brilliant is captured in that old Frank Sinatra song “Nice and Easy Does It.”

Turns Out that Less Work is the Ticket to Sustaining Higher Performance

Less appears to be more for the brain in sustaining peak performance. Some think that taking breaks is a union conspiracy.  Not so; breaks appear to be foundational to sustaining peak performance.  A study at New York University showed during periods of wakeful rest (aka, a break) that brain activity increases between the hippocampus (the brain’s memory powerhouse) and neocortex (the part of the brain that makes humans highly intelligence). [1]  Conversely, they found that continuing on with other tasks after learning new information appears to interrupt the new idea, inspiration or learning you want to strengthen.

Breaks aid in memory consolidation, improve recall and facilitate that ‘top of your game’ condition called flow.  Taking a coffee break after class or a meeting or when you’ve worked dilligently for a time can actually help you retain the information you just learned.  Your brain wants you to take a break in order to tune out other tasks so it can tune in to what you just learned and get creative with it.

And Letting Your Mind Wander Increases Your Creative Intelligence by 40%

And get this, especially those who believe in putting your brain’s nose to the grindstone. A recent study at the University of California found that participants who were given an easy task conducive to mind-wandering during an incubation period after working on something important showed greater improvements in creativity compared to those who continued to engage in a demanding task. In fact, the individuals who were induced to mind wander showed an improvement of 40% compared to their baseline level of creative performance!

How is that possible?

The researchers suggest that “mind-wandering may enhance creativity by increasing the likelihood of non-conscious associative processing, consistent with the spreading activation hypothesis for incubation effects.” In other words, letting go and allowing your mind to wander after working diligently kicks your brain into a condition in which the dots begin to connect themselves. [2]

That Out of the Blue Moment Called Ah Ha!

Most of us judge the content of mind wandering as useless if not downright stupid.  We tell ourselves to snap out of it.  Well, it’s time to reconsider that notion. The evidence is that our openness to this experience and its seemingly irrelevant content intensifies creativity by associating two ideas from different brain networks.  You’ll know when you’ve experience this; it’s comes on as that out of the blue moment and verbalizes in you as Ah Ha!

Nice and Easy is Also the Best Way to Remember New Stuff

Less effort is how the brain remembers best.  Most people memorize details by repeating them over and over.  We feel inept five minutes later when we can’t remember all of it.  Drilling information into our head ad nauseum is not the best way to convert short term memory (which quickly fades and disappears) into long term memory (where it’s at your beck and call).  The best way to memorize something important is:

  1. Concentrate on what you want to remember for a moment in ways that are fun (I provide some “fun” approaches below).
  2. Let the mind go blank for twenty seconds and then recall the information.
  3. Do steps 1 and 2 four times within the span of an hour.

This simple process is much less work and much more effective.   It works by providing the brain the time to consolidate the information and build the neural pathway that now holds it.[3]  Try it.  You’ll find the information sticks.

The fun part in memorizing is using mind games. Association is one example, such as remembering something by associating it with something familiar from the past.  It’s a good way to remember names.  The brain also likes word games. For example, the phrase “My very easy method just set up nine planets” has been used for years by Astronomy 101 students to remember Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The fictitious name “Roy G Biv” has helped students remember the order of the colors in a rainbow.  It works because sentences that are complete thoughts are often easier to remember than details.  And easier is the way the higher brain likes it. Part of what’s accomplished by making things fun is that you don’t stress as much and as a result prevent stress hormones from retarding the hippocampus, the brain’s memory powerhouse.

And the Same is True For Forgetting Bad Stuff

The brain also seems to make forgetting easier than we once thought.  That goes for bad stuff as well as stuff that are no longer relevant to the brain.  Scientists used to believe that long-term memories were immutable.  Researchers have found that ten to twenty attempts at blocking a bad memory reliably leads to forgetting it in most people.  In theory, you could bury an unwanted memory by practicing shutting it out every day for a month.

Something neuropsychologists call “cognitive reappraisal” is simply a step in which you put a positive spin on a difficult or painful situation as you engage it.  Doing so can enhance how accurately you’ll remember what happens and diminish the post-traumatic stress the situation might otherwise generate.

Simple Walking Through a Door Clears Your Mind

Believe it or not, walking through a door passage can clear your mind. We’ve all had the annoying experience of arriving in a room only to realize we’ve forgotten what we came there to do.  We’ve probably thought we were losing our grip.  Not so; it’s the way the brain works.  The brain purges old information in favor of new stuff.  Somehow, passing through a door triggers the brain to hit the delete button.  This may sound like bad news but actually we can use walking through a door to our advantage.  It can clear our mind for the next thing on our agenda, especially if the previous situation was stressful, irritating or upsetting.  Here’s how.  Simply get up from where you’re sitting and walk through a doorway into the next space. Researchers at Notre Dame University found whatever happened in the old room is likely to become less relevant to your brain once you have changed venues.

Of course, the unwanted side effect of walking through a door is when your boss or a call of nature pulls you away from an unfinished task.  Passing through your office door is likely to erase information about where you were and what’s the next step. So be sure to write a quick Post-It and stick it to your computer screen so you know where to pick things up when you return.

Especially don’t forget: less is more is the key to the genius in you that buried beneath that hard way of creating that we were taught in school.


[1] Tambini, A., Enhanced Brain Correlations during Rest Are Related to Memory for Recent Experiences,  Neuron, Jan. 28, 2010; vol 5: pp 1-11.

[2] Smallwood, j., McSpadden, M. and Schooler, J., When attention matters: The curious incident of the wandering mind, Memory & Cognition, Volume 36, Number 6, 1144-1150, DOI: 10.3758/MC.36.6.1144

[3] Michael A. Colicos, Pictures Reveal How Nerve Cells Form Connections To Store Short Term, and Long Term  Memories In Brain. Cell, Nov30,2001