At our first choral rehearsal of the season, our music director admonished us for eye rolling when requested to sing scale degrees and work a little harder on our musical thinking – it was suggested, supported by a neuroscience type in the room, that the brain doesn’t get tired. Even though most of us had worked a full day and were adding a three-hour rehearsal at the end of it, active, attentive brains were expected, no complaining.
The brain doesn’t get tired? Really? So that fuzzy, muddled feeling I have when I’ve crossed seven time zones and can’t remember my ATM code isn’t brain fatigue, but something else? And when my spouse has a week of 18 hour days and forgets a dinner date that’s been on the calendar for months, that’s not brain fatigue? I’m at the age now when I walk into a room I sometimes can’t remember what I came for, but inattentiveness is not the same as the inability to focus that accompanies exhaustion. I haven’t read the neuroscientific research on the topic, but I’m inclined to disagree with the assertion that there is no brain fatigue.
Americans are reputed to work too much, too many hours for too many weeks, no or few paid leaves, no extended vacations. With the advent of modern technology, a week at the beach now usually includes daily checking of e-mail and the mind being constantly pulled back to the work world. We work all the time and we never truly escape. Europeans shake their heads. A friend in Austria once told me she could not imagine making it through her year without her 4-6 weeks in Greece very summer. My sister-in-law and her French husband always have their July and August at their country farmhouse, with no pressures or worries. No one expects them to work, and they themselves consider this time off essential.
Is it? Do we need to play, not just get more sleep and exercise, eat better and take a break, but actively engage the mind elsewhere as a form of rest? Of course we do. The old adage “All work and no play…”, meant for children, applies to dull adults as well, even though our ambition and competitiveness drive us to ignore our need for rest. Being away can be magically restorative, the sound of waves crashing on rocks and the scent of sea air a powerful cleansing medicine, erasing sirens, taxi horns, ringing telephones, stacks of paperwork, and the relentless demands of daily life. It is a balm that cannot be measured, the good it does elusive but very real: for some it is the physical and mental demand of sport that provides the needed break. For others, it is looking at or learning something new, listening to birds or waves or music, reading, or not actively thinking or doing anything. Being still.
Returning to work and life after such a pause with renewed energy, blossoming creativity, a clear mind and rested body is the proof. For anyone living with a high powered career, or loving someone who does, insistence on time away is important. Brains need rest, relationships need renewal, people need time off. Employers of America take note: people with fried brains do not make good work. Give us a break!
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.