The Atlantic has an excerpt from a new book by psychologist Lea Waters, The Strength Switch, talking about the importance of free time and mind-wandering (or “free-form attention,” as she calls it) in childhood development.
free-form attention is what the brain defaults to when it’s off-task, allowed to move in any direction it wants. It happens when the brain is in what scientists call the resting state. In the 1990s, neuropsychologists began to delve into free-form attention and found that it has many benefits, including for children’s learning and their brain development. To shift instantly into free-form attention, all an individual has to do is goof off.
Now just any kind of goofing off won’t do. There’s a constructive form of goofing off that is restorative to the brain and therefore important for strength-based parenting—parenting that focuses on kids’ strengths instead of their weaknesses. Good goofing off is active; the mind is not simply being “fed” stimuli. Rather, the activity engages the mind in a way that simultaneously gives it free rein. Good goofing off happens when the person participating is competent enough at the activity that he or she does not have to focus closely on the process or the techniques. It happens when reading, cooking a familiar recipe, shooting baskets, or simply daydreaming.
Waters calls those periods when you’re not focused on specific tasks “deliberate rest,” which is of course a term I’ve used in my book; we use it in somewhat different ways– I’m talking about a particular set of practices that people discover and can get better at, while she’s talking more about mind-wandering.
Still, we both see focus and deliberate rest (whichever way you define it) as working together:
The ability to toggle between directed attention and free-form attention improves with practice, making the brain most effective. The brain can snap to attention when necessary and then downshift to deliberate rest mode whenever possible in order to maximize mental alertness, process information, and bring forward that knowledge to apply to the next attentive time.
Looks like a book worth checking out.