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The Benefits of Playing Hooky

Monday, July 16, 2012 - 02:30 PM

So. July 4th has come and gone. I don't know if any of you are like me, but I wake up every year on the 5th of July with the same dark thought: “Well, summer's basically over."

I grew up with parents who take a strange pleasure in lamenting the passage of things (“Oh!” my Mom cries the moment after I’ve set my bag down for a three-day visit, “it’s almost over!”), and I suppose the tendency has stuck. And thus, upon rising on the inevitably sunny morning of the 5th, I can see only the ashes upon the grass outside my window…from the fireworks the night before. Only the grime upon my once red, white, and blue clothes. Only that significant chunk of the calendar that’s just crumbled away behind me. “That’s it,” I think. “Farewell, Summer. Farewell.”

But I discovered an astonishing truth this year, in the faces of an intriguingly upbeat family I was staying with in St. Louis. As the doom-cloud that was me sulked into their kitchen on July 5th morning, they remained impervious, un-poisoned. They laughed off my sullen refrain. According to them—I am still incredulous to type it—that’s not it. Following the conclusion of the 4th of July, two more months of summer await!

I have fact-checked their claim and discovered, heck, if you’re going by the technical definition—which puts the beginning of fall at the equinox on September 22—that’s 79 days, aka 11 weeks, aka two months and three weeks, aka round up, that’s three months of summer, aka—what’s that?—that’s more summer than there is summer remaining after the 4th of July! Did I lose you? The point is, we’ve only just begun! Summer, and plenty of it, awaits for our rejoicing! For getting our knees dirty and our throats sweet. So, to celebrate this reality, I invite you to partake of one of the most beloved of summer traditions. Not an afternoon barbeque or a family jamboree, but… (shhh, make sure no one’s listening) playing hooky.

That's right. Seize the day and make the bad choice. Call in with a little cough and a grand plan. Don't over-think it. Just...go. To the mountains, the beach, the bowling alley. I’m serious. I’m not just being a hedonist instigator here—it turns out hard scientific evidence suggests that playing hooky is good for you.

You see, a bunch of new brain-imaging studies* shows how getting out of that desk chair could have huge benefits for you and your work. If you're stumped on a problem, sitting and agonizing at your desk may actually be the worst thing you can do. You’ve heard this before. You’ve probably experienced it. That annoying paradox where it seems an answer won’t present itself until you've stopped trying to figure it out. (Archimedes can't figure out volume until he's chillin' in the bath.) Well, these new studies suggest there are really certain types of insights that simply cannot switch on until you stop “thinking.”

I learned about this perverse little trick of the human mind in Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, which looks at how the brain comes up with new ideas. The way these kind of “eureka moments” work is fascinating. As I get it, your own desire to solve a puzzle takes on a physiological form in your brain. Scientists Mark Beeman and John Kounios gave subjects word teasers (One was: pine, crab, sauce. What word "fits" with all of them? Apple. Pineapple, crab apple, apple sauce. Ok, try another: sand, age, mile. _______??). Beeman and Kounios watched as their subjects’ left hemispheres lit up—blood flow churning in the language areas as they considered every possible connection. (Errr... "blast?" Sandblast, ageblast… No…  Errr... "castle?"  No….) Sometimes, this kind of thinking gets you to the answer. But on the more challenging puzzles, this heavy brain slogging eventually becomes its own dead end. I picture it almost like a dam: each and every connection you've pursued turns solid, almost like a wire grid, that eventually fences off your path to the answer. After enough time, this leads into wall of frustration—subjects come to a point where they yell at the researchers, "these puzzles are too hard!" They feel there’s no answer to be found. They want to quit.

For the lucky few who do figure it out, the answer rarely comes from hammering on with the labored thinking. Instead, Kounios and Beeman watched as, time after time, an insight appeared from a completely different part of the brain. Far away from the struggling query of the left brain, deep down in a small area near your right ear, that looks to me like a Sphinx (called the Anterior Superior Temporal Gyrus, or aSTG. I'm gonna keep calling it the Sphinx, OK? The Sphinx.). They would see the Sphinx glow hot—with gamma waves, the highest frequency of electricity produced by the brain. 30 milliseconds later, the person would bolt up and say, “Aha!”

(For sand, age, mile, the answer is.......................Stone).

So how on earth do you get your Sphinx to light up?

You take a break. Let you mind wander. Play hooky.

Joydeep Bhattacharya—a scientist working with a similar experimental set-up as Kounios and Beeman, but using a different set of riddles—made this hooky connection after noticing something funny. The harder his subjects thought, the further they seemed to get from the answer. He’d flash hints at them, and…nothing. It was almost like, with their thinking so loud, they couldn’t hear these obvious clues. But if the subjects began to give up for a bit, to zone out and relax (and he could see this not just from their posture but on EEG readings), the clues would suddenly snap into place, and lead them to an answer.

The relaxed state Bhattacharya was seeing on the EEG readings was a type of brain wave called “alpha waves.” Though I don’t know exactly what they look like, they are the wave associated with relaxing activities like warm showers and gentle strolls, so I picture them long and mellow. But the point is, Bhattacharya could see them every time—literally see them. Once those alpha waves rolled in, the insight was near.

This suggests that, for certain types of puzzles, look all you want, you will never find the answer scouring the labyrinth of left-brain reasoning. You need to stop—to literally switch offline—to get to the answer.

Exactly how these alpha waves prime the brain is unknown, but the idea is that they work in some way to wash away that distracting brain chatter (the heavy blood flow Kounios and Beeman observed at the start of a puzzle in the left brain), so you can hear the answer. Where exactly does the answer come from? Back to the enigmatic Sphinx (the aSTG). The idea is that the Sphinx “knows” the answer all along. It’s an area of the brain that’s not so great at words, but can make broader "sense-of things" connections—associations, metaphors, getting jokes—instantaneously. But it’s quieter. Thus, you just need to get out of your own way. Chill out. Shut up. Allow a breeze, the slow waves, to literally wash away your own noise.

Jonah's book goes on to explore mysteries like "how simple cells can recognize what the conscious mind cannot" (Like. Whoa. Yeah. How??). But I stopped at the alpha waves. 36 pages in, I closed the book shut. For I had just learned all I needed to know. As I saw it, I’d just received bona fide permission, even encouragement, from hardworking scientists the world head to the beach. And I wanted to share this most glorious of findings with you all.

So I mean it. Go offline. Take a day away. Really work to shut down that whirring brain and focus on other things: the rippling of water, the feel of sun on your skin. Relax. Let those alpha waves come rushing in. Maybe it’ll lead to a staggering breakthrough.

And in case you’re still not buying it, this isn’t just a theory cooked up in a lab setting. Shirking work in the name of work has led to real-world success stories. Companies like Google and 3M (which makes Scotch Tape, Post-its, ACE bandages, etc) implement forced bouts of playing hooky. 3M requires every worker to spend 15% of their day—every day—putting aside responsibilities. They can take strolls, naps, play ping-pong, anything, as long as it has nothing to do with the task at hand. They call it "bootlegging," and insist it has brought about some of their best ideas. Marissa Mayer (former Google exec) estimates half of new Google products come from their "Innovation Time Off" policy (Gmail, Google News, and AdSense to name a few).

Maybe you'll be the next inventor of a multi-billion dollar software enterprise.

We’ll only ask for a small cut of the profit.

But seriously, I'm hereby challenging you to play hooky. We’re curious if this stuff is real. Does playing hooky really get you anywhere? Does it help you come to any big conclusions? Perhaps not on your main problem, but another? Share your experience, however fruitful or failed. Shoot us an anecdote of a discovery you made in the comments section below. Or send us a photo of you in your hooky locale (though you may want to consider wearing a Nixon mask). We'll feature our favorite snapshots here (you can upload a photo through the widget below, or if you have our new mobile app, you can submit a photo right from your phone):

Thanks for reading. Be back next Monday.

Most of this comes from Jonah’s most seriously readable book, Imagine, about deconstructing the epiphany. A great read for managers and procrastinators everywhere!

*Further reading:

IMAGES: The images of fireworks at the top of the post are remixed from photos by soundman1024: Photo #1 of fireworks flickr/CC-BY-2.0; Photo #2 of spent fireworks flickr/CC-BY-2.0


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Comments [7]

Nathan from Denver, CO

In college I encountered many confusing problems in my daily coursework. At the time, it was normal for me to take afternoon bicycle rides. I began to notice that my bicycle rides yielded insights into the problems that I was trying to solve. So often so that I started to rely on the rides to solve problems that I couldn't in the classroom. I have always remembered this phenomena with the phrase, "You should ride your bicycle for a half hour each day. If you don't have time to do that, ride for at least an hour."

Nov. 02 2014 02:06 PM
Colleen F. from Stratford, CT

Honestly, listening to Radiolab is playing hooky!! And this story with the blood flow and the not allowing your brain to stop, brings me to something I've been thinking alot about, mommy-brain. It is very real and happens even more when having a second child. You feel stumped, stupid and blank over the simplest things. You think, I had this on the tip of my tongue 5 minutes ago and Poof! It's gone! Twice the blood flowing through the body, mind always thinking of the hundred and one things that are happening with the family and what you need to do, what you need to do at work, and, if pregnant, your mind reeling over all of things you may be experiencing certainly leads to brain farts. Now, tell a mom to go play hooky, when do much is depending in you? That's where you come in, Radiolab. When I can't get away physically, I try, and sometimes feel guilty, to escape to other lands and concepts through you. My hooky place? The Radiolab landscape:) Thank you.

Jul. 29 2012 12:07 AM
Chris from Cape Cod

I'm a research biophysicist. I wouldn't have been as lucky in my scientific discoveries - not would I have had as much fun making them - if I had avoided playing hookey. You are right on the mark there, Lulu.

Jul. 23 2012 01:56 PM
allison ayer from SF, CA

hi! love your show and have listened to all as well as seen your live stuff, you guys rock. wondering if you have the connections to find something for me:for years i've played the game "tribond", or did, until basically i realized that i knew all the cards. (actually the one i first purchased was already the "best of" version). (also, the game "Set" never gets old for visual pattern recognition). but where can i find new cards for tribond or a similar game? im an artist/filmmaker/bodyworker/trainer/feng shui consultant in SF and any creativity exercises are great!

thanks so much!

Jul. 19 2012 03:57 PM

I'm a writer, director, and performer in theatre, and I'm working on an epic solo performance right now. What I've found is that I need to spend a lot of time researching topics I don't know much about (right wing values and gardening, in this case) and then spend some time away to let it "percolate." In a couple of days, I usually have a flash of incite at a random time when I'm not thinking about the script.

Jul. 16 2012 09:08 PM
Katrina from Boston, MA

I use minesweeper. Great to have you back at RadioLab Lulu!

Jul. 16 2012 06:45 PM
Rebecca from Edmonton, Alberta

Sometimes when I'm writing a paper I get stuck and really just can't face it for a day or two. I'll just play solitaire game after solitaire game, and then suddenly it all clicks into place and the whole discussion section pours out in a couple hours. It's just the way I work.

Jul. 16 2012 06:15 PM

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