It’s 1:02 p.m. Do you know what your brain is doing? If the answer is trawling the bowels of the internet instead of finishing those spreadsheets, it might be time to step away from your desk. Brain slumps are real, said Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. And the antidote to this midafternoon mind sludge isn’t muddling through, no matter what hustle culture wants you to believe. It’s the opposite: You should take a break.
“We can’t expect to lift weights nonstop all day, and we can’t expect to use sustained focus and attention for extended periods of time, either,” said Dr. Mark, author of “Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity.” While your brain is not a muscle, the analogy is a good one, since staying focused requires our brains to burn energy, said Marta Sabariego, an assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College who studies attention and other goal directed behaviors.
But the most compelling reason for taking a brain break is that it may improve your ability to do quality work. A 2022 systematic review published in the journal PLoS ONE found that even short breaks lasting 10 minutes or less reduced mental fatigue and increased vigor (meaning the willingness to persist when work became difficult).
These breaks especially improved performance on tasks requiring creativity and less so for activities like basic arithmetic. The analysis found that the longer the break, the better the performance boost. Since few of us can take unlimited breaks, the trick is to use the time you have wisely — even if that means ignoring your boss’s dirty look as you fiddle with a Rubik’s Cube….
The functions of the brain depend on the ability of neurons to transmit electrochemical signals to other cells, and their ability to respond appropriately to electrochemical signals received from other cells. The electrical properties of neurons are controlled by a wide variety of biochemical and metabolic processes, most notably the interactions between neurotransmitters and receptors that take place at synapses.
Neurotransmitters and receptors
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that are released at synapses when the local membrane is depolarised and Ca2+ enters into the cell, typically when an action potential arrives at the synapse – neurotransmitters attach themselves to receptor molecules on the membrane of the synapse’s target cell (or cells), and thereby alter the electrical or chemical properties of the receptor molecules.
With few exceptions, each neuron in the brain releases the same chemical neurotransmitter, or combination of neurotransmitters, at all the synaptic connections it makes with other neurons; this rule is known as Dale’s principle.Thus, a neuron can be characterized by the neurotransmitters that it releases. The great majority of psychoactive drugs exert their effects by altering specific neurotransmitter systems. This applies to drugs such as cannabinoids, nicotine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, fluoxetine, chlorpromazine, and many others.
The two neurotransmitters that are most widely found in the vertebrate brain are glutamate, which almost always exerts excitatory effects on target neurons, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is almost always inhibitory. Neurons using these transmitters can be found in nearly every part of the brain. Because of their ubiquity, drugs that act on glutamate or GABA tend to have broad and powerful effects.
Some general anesthetics act by reducing the effects of glutamate; most tranquilizers exert their sedative effects by enhancing the effects of GABA. There are dozens of other chemical neurotransmitters that are used in more limited areas of the brain, often areas dedicated to a particular function.
Serotonin, for example—the primary target of many antidepressant drugs and many dietary aids—comes exclusively from a small brainstem area called the raphe nuclei. Norepinephrine, which is involved in arousal, comes exclusively from a nearby small area called the locus coeruleus. Other neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and dopamine have multiple sources in the brain but are not as ubiquitously distributed as glutamate and GABA.
Neuroscientists currently distinguish several types of learning and memory that are implemented by the brain in distinct ways:
- Working memory is the ability of the brain to maintain a temporary representation of information about the task that an animal is currently engaged in. This sort of dynamic memory is thought to be mediated by the formation of cell assemblies—groups of activated neurons that maintain their activity by constantly stimulating one another.
- Episodic memory is the ability to remember the details of specific events. This sort of memory can last for a lifetime. Much evidence implicates the hippocampus in playing a crucial role: people with severe damage to the hippocampus sometimes show amnesia, that is, inability to form new long-lasting episodic memories.
- Semantic memory is the ability to learn facts and relationships. This sort of memory is probably stored largely in the cerebral cortex, mediated by changes in connections between cells that represent specific types of information.
- Instrumental learning is the ability for rewards and punishments to modify behavior. It is implemented by a network of brain areas centered on the basal ganglia.
- Motor learning is the ability to refine patterns of body movement by practicing, or more generally by repetition. A number of brain areas are involved, including the premotor cortex, basal ganglia, and especially the cerebellum, which functions as a large memory bank for microadjustments of the parameters of movement.
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