live it active

Why Downtime is So Important For Your Brain

I am currently reading the book, The End of Illness by Dr. David Agus (yes, I am still reading it…come on, I had a book club book to read). I have already discussed a topic from his book – inflammation. If you haven’t read my post, I encourage you to do so as it sheds light on the risks of exposing your body to regular and prolonged bouts of inflammation.

Today I wanted to touch on an important piece of research that Agus shares in his book on the topic of downtime and learning.

Researcher Loren Frank, at the University of California has done a lot of groundbreaking research (using rats) in the area of memory replay following exposure to a novel stimuli. In one particular study, Frank and Mattias Karlsson investigated the amount of memory replay during a rest period that followed exposure to a novel environment. To be clear, the rest period was carried out in a different location (i.e. another box) than the “novel environment” location (i.e. a more fancy box).

Memory replay was measured using electrodes connected to the hippocampal region (our memory bank) of the brain. Karlsson and Frank measured replay during both wake and quiescence (i.e. almost sleep state and/or sleep state) throughout the rest period. They predicted that memory replay would be greatest during quiescence due to prior findings in their lab and others. Surprisingly, their predictions were wrong.

“Replay of events was of higher fidelity in awake state” as opposed to replay during quiescence. Karlsson and Frank state that stronger replay during wakeful rest may be due to the fact that “novel experiences generate a long-lasting increase in neuronal excitability and neuronal coordination for the cells active during the [actual] experience”. Thus, the neurons activated during the novel experience are more active during the rest state, even in a different environment, which would explain the increase in memory replay that was found.

While the causal link between memory replay and actual consolidation remains to be established, this finding may shed light on the process. Our periods of rest/downtime/relaxation may be integral in the consolidation and long-term storage of new information. Quite simply, it seems that we need rest in order to learn. But we know this, don’t we? Most of us have experienced great breakthroughs on questions, projects, etc. during or following a break, no?

Thus, we must make a concerted effort to increase periods of rest throughout the day. Being on the computer, checking your Blackberry, playing video games (or games on your cell phone) are not doing you any favours either. While you may think you are resting/relaxing, your brain would disagree. The amount of sensory stimulation can be very tiresome for your old noggin, so please put the iPhone down.

So today, take time to enjoy a period of quiet. Especially following an intense meeting, class, or workshop. Take time for yourself. And if your boss or family members question your behaviour, you may simply respond with “Excuse me, I’m learning”.



Agus, David. 2011. The End of Illness. Free Press: New York.

Karlsson, Mattias, Frank, Loren. 2009. Awake replay of remote experiences in the hippocampus. Nature Neuroscience: 12(7);913-17.


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