How holidays can make you smarter

There isn’t much debate about whether leaving lectures behind for a few weeks and heading out on holiday feels good. But did you know that this kind of disruption to your regular schedule can change your brain for the better? It’s true!

By constantly living under pressure to problem-solve and plan, your ability to think creatively and strategically starts to dwindle. What’s more, continuous “term time” set off reactions in your body, such as stress, fatigue and negative mood, and they drain focus, strength, and emotional resources. Naturally, these need to be refueled, otherwise it becomes harder to stay on-task, be attentive and solve problems. Indeed, your brain operates more clearly when not rushing from one task to the next.

Other reasons why holidays have brain boosting health benefits:

  • Lower stress levels. Holidays are important because your brain isn’t equipped to maintain constant levels of stress. When you’re under chronic stress, your body releases the stress hormone, cortisol. High levels of cortisol damage the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory).
  • Less technology. Media multitasking, like sending a text while taking notes, doesn’t make you more productive, it does the opposite! Your brain simply isn’t wired to perform two tasks at once. Forcing yourself to switch between tasks fatigues the frontal lobe of your brain, slowing its efficiency and performance.
  • A change in focus. On holiday your brain can focus on more mundane (but still important) things. When you’re not actively learning something new, the brain consolidates information that you have already learnt, storing it in its memory bank.
  • More sleep. No early lectures means a later waking time (provided you don’t have later bed times!). When you’re sleep deprived, your cognitive functioning plummets to a less-than-ideal level, making it hard to do anything productive. While the jury is still out on whether you are ever actually able to catch up on lost sleep, getting the right amount of sleep (7-9hrs per night) significantly improves learning, memory and overall brain function.
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How to make the most of your holiday to boost your brain

  1. Make a holiday bucket list. As much as you need to take things easy while on holiday, the brain is an organ and needs exercise, so engage in activities to stimulate yourself intellectually (other than studying).
  2. Get up and go outside. Make it a point not to sit in front of your TV all day. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, bringing with it extra oxygen and nutrients to tired brain cells. Immersing yourself in nature is another great way to avoid brain drain.
  3. Unplug and get more sleep. Aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to allow your brain to fully rest and recover. Avoid late night Whatsapp chats!
  4. Make fewer decisions. Decision making is a critical part of life, but eliminate them where you can. Have the same meal every Wednesday, or pick out your clothes the night before. By keeping some basic, routine decisions simple (or eliminating them altogether) you’ll be saving all your mental energy.
  5. Choose brain food. Your brain uses more energy than any other of your organs, using up to 20% of your daily energy intake. Feed the beast! Choose nutrient dense options that balance out energy throughout the day. A sugary treat might make you feel great temporarily, but when your sugar levels drop, so does your mental energy.

Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both your brain’s and body’s performance. Ensure you maximise your holiday and give your brain the break it needs. This way it will be tuned-up for the new semester, and ready to creatively tackle challenging problems with perspective and energy.