An Idle Brain, A Focused Brain?

The brain is never idle, especially when we sleep.

We think that daydreaming is idle time, but the brain is still working.

Studies show us that idle time, where the brain can wander, can be very creative.

But we need to tell the brain what we want it to do, and to train it to focus and pay attention.

As an example, today I went to the 99 cent store to pick up one thing. I went in without a list and I spent $34.00 on 34 things but I’m happy to report that I did get the one thing I went to get!

It’s a simple story, but the lesson is there – the brain needs a list or a specific goal in focus or it shops everywhere, for everything.

We need to practice focus and attention even during idle time, to avoid letting our thoughts go off in a negative direction – resulting in anxiety, dread, fear or discomfort.

That moves us into the sympathetic nervous system of fight/flight, our cortisol rises and the stress hormones kick in. Thyroxin, which is long-term adrenaline, can stay in the system for as long as four days.

So idle time spent day dreaming that goes in a negative direction is not healthy.

Negative issues that need to be addressed are those that continue to arise in one way or another. If we get everyday needless negative feelings out of the way and build up a positive reservoir, the truly negative things will only come up because you will have a greater sense of security in allowing them to do so.

It is often the negative feelings of an idle brain that create rumination, worrying dreams, and a sense of threat.

Research shows us that we don’t accomplish much when we are threatened on the most basic level.

© Dr. William K. Larkin

About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin
  • Dwayne Paro

    Love this article. The idea that the brain is always engaged and we need to focus what it is doing and processing is very important. From personal experience I can certainly take myself quickly to a state of concern or worry about what might happen in the future. I’ve worked on this for several years and have been able to identify quickly when this is happening and to bring myself out of that state rapidly when awake by focusing on a specific topic to engage my mind in a more productive and positive way. On the other hand at night if something hasn’t “resolved” or “settled” prior to going to bed I know my brain will continue to play with the worry or concern until I have properly moved from it.

    When it comes to coaching I find that some clients can come to a session with out focus of what they intend to work on and the conversation can become a spider web of random thoughts that are not necessarily positive. Once I get the client to agree to focusing on one of those topics they brought up with a focused outcome they would like to achieve and continue to guide them to an even more refinement of what they are addressing things become much more productive and positive.

  • Kalah Vaughan

    This is a great blog and is something many people would benefit from understanding. A few statements stood out to me that I was unaware of;

    “Thyroxin, which is long-term adrenaline, can stay in the system for as long as four days.”

    This is a large wake call. I see others like my mother, who is currently in a down spiral seem so sad and depressed after getting beaten down with her and others negative thoughts. It makes since, we have endorphin’s pump through our bodies when we are happy. Thyroxin is just the opposite effect occurring. Knowing this long term adrenaline can last up to four days will make me rethink the next time my mind drifts into negative territory.

    I also thought, practicing focus and attention during idle time is a great idea. I have learned that the acts of; “intention” “attention” and “no- tension” are strong methods of achieving life’s progress. The same is said to be able to place intention on our daydreams can be very rewarding and will help begin a visualization process that will in the long term bring truly wanted results.

    The next time I am in idle state of mind I will focus my thoughts on an intention. I will place my attention to these thoughts than I will give no tension. Meaning that I will trust my intention and attention has brought me to a state of mind I would prefer to focus on and I can now release my brain and let go. And just be….

  • Dr. gloria wright

    I used Loving Kindness meditation exercises (ex: “May you feel safe.”) in a recent workshop on Living a Joyful Life. One participant commented that she had never thought of “feeling safe” as a foundation for joy. But isn’t it? And how can we feel safe, if we feel anxious, or worried or afraid…. And aren’t those feelings influenced by our thoughts? So, simply put, if we think of fearful things, we feel afraid.

    I call my mind wanderings my constant radio program. I am more aware than I have ever been about the “programs” that I let run willy nilly through my consciousness. I don’t let myself engage in worry or being a victim any more than I can help. If that radio station comes on, I change the channel. If I need a dramatic station break, I do meditation on: Gratitude, Love, Joy, Peace & Hope and “May you feel safe, happy, strong and healthy, and may you live life with ease.” Living life with ease is my intention, so that doesn’t leave a lot of room for negative rumination or future tripping.

    I do like un-structured time, but too much creeps into an anxiousness. It’s as if I miss focus and pre-directed attention. I love piddling in my garden – just going where the muse leads me. But if I’m not thoughtful, my muse doesn’t lead me to Quick Books, or emails or writing newsletters or responding to blogs. (LOL)

    I think my mind is a bit like a horse. They love the pasture. But I think they love to be ridden and run and show their stuff in horse shows – and so do we. I love to engage with interesting people. I like to play dress-up – get fixed up to go out. And I love my QB when I’ve successfully reconciled and I love the newsletters – when they go out.

    So what do you want on your mind? What radio program is on in your head in the background? What do you want to give your focus and attention to? Be mindful because it matters – especially over time – and especially if you want to live a healthy, happy and long life.

  • Kathy Lee

    The Optimism Test was interesting; I ranged from very-to-average Optimistic on three sections to very Pessimistic on the last section. And it threw me for a loop. I started with questioning how much progress I’ve been making in the Emotional Gym, lost my confidence, didn’t sleep well, and woke up sad this morning. So I wrote down my US and ES numbers and worked with my coach on making a choice to focus on what I do want to feel and become. I decided not to talk very much about the test results, not make it longer-lasting beyond explaining the experience and my negative reaction to it. I decided to re-focus on feeling happier, started the pulsing emotional Gym exercises and I started to come up and out of this temporary funk. Then I decided to watch this week’s video and get plugged into learning about the brain, optimism and pessimism, permanence and pervasiveness and what I am learning is that I’ve made great strides in reducing the permanence and pervasiveness of bad events in my life, made some progress in expanding the permanence of good events, and still have lots of room for improvement in expanding the pervasiveness of good events in life. So instead of thinking myself a failure at optimism, I am pinpointing which aspect of optimism is my growth opportunity. My life is a learning journey, a workshop, a laboratory, not an fine arts gallery. A wise friend once told me, “The road to life is always under construction.”

    • kit

      Kathy the description of your process, itself, is a testimony to hope! Thank you for shining the light on actionable steps one can take to be a real creator of our inner life architecture. I so enjoy and appreciate how you are ‘training’ your state of being. I love ‘mapping’ – concepts, theories, knowledge – into personal operational approaches and action. Action is where we get to translate the beliefs and other stuff of our inner life, into our outside manifestation, and quality of life, via what our hands, arms, legs, mouth, etc. physically do. As Dr. Larkin talked about in this week’s video, it’s one thing to blab on about the beliefs we profess we have in our head, as the ‘indicator’ of our higher consciousness. It’s quite another, to mine ourselves to discover a truth that isn’t opinion, on what our beliefs actually are, (via how they manifest in our lives) and then, to implement tactical strategies to refine or construct something else. Love how you are describing your physical expression of your inner work, from lack of sleep, to the specific writing down of scores, etc.!

  • kit

    I love the feeling of a sustained focus mental activity, aka ‘being in
    the zone’. I practice sustained focus routinely and customarily, to the
    endless hilarity of myself, my family and friends.

    Whaddya mean it only takes a minute to make a sandwich??

    There
    is so much interesting stuff to know about sandwiches! I can be
    completely fascinated and engaged in researching who invented the
    sandwich, how different cultures make sandwiches, what is the fastest
    way to make one – hey there’s even a sandwich making contest! – to the
    point I forgot I was hungry in the first place ….and do I know it’s been
    4 hours since my husband asked me to make him a new kind of
    sandwich????

    I’m kidding. I never actually did a whole 4 hours worth of research on sandwiches.

    All my life people have called me ‘intense’.

    While
    I understand the concept of ‘brain idle time’, I am too busy sampling
    from life’s buffet table of experiences and activities to relate to
    having any (idle time).

    There is so much yumminess, letting one’s
    mind wander when it hasn’t fully contemplated what it already has
    before it, much less all the art to be made, and science and literature
    and everything else to be read and contemplated and maybe used and
    practiced, that it hasn’t yet tasted, seems like a waste.

    This love of focused brain activity doesn’t mean I don’t meander.

    It’s
    just that when I meander – I love to wander through museums, shops,
    journal, lay on the ground immersed in the sensory input ( I call this
    ‘earthing’), and other type activities – I do so with focused intent on
    drinking in whatever the meander’s purpose.

    Heck, even while we
    are driving, waiting in a long, long line with nobody around to talk to,
    if we choose, the brain offers us rich fodder for contemplation that can
    feed our creativity.

    As an avid science fiction buff, when I am
    alone for long periods of time like driving many hours, I invent my own
    fun scenarios about aliens, talking plants, and humans who can shape
    shift into animals and REALLY run wild with the wolves (shout out to Clarissa Pink Estes).

    I’m probably not the only person that entertains themselves this way.

    Yah, so maybe I’m the only one who will admit it to other humans.

    At
    one particular spot on the river during a family kayak trip, the guide
    took a picture of each one of us moving our kayak through a little
    rapid.

    How fascinating it is to feel the currents and one’s body balance,
    see the forces in the water causing the kayak to move this-a-way,
    that-a-way, in contradiction to how one’s brain wants one’s body to make
    the kayak move…..

    I don’t know why my family keeps teasing me
    about looking intensely at the water instead of smiling at the camera
    like each one of them did…

  • kit

    Test to see if my comment will be posted. My past two have been marked as spam.

  • kit

    I love the feeling of a sustained focus mental activity, aka ‘being in the zone’. I practice routinely, to the endless hilarity of myself, my family and friends. Sometimes with subjects I would not ever have imagined could capture my attention so deeply.

    What do you mean, it only takes a minute to make a sandwich??

    There is so much interesting stuff to know about sandwiches! I can be completely fascinated and engaged in researching who invented the sandwich, how different cultures make sandwiches, what is the fastest way to make one – hey there’s even a sandwich making contest! – to the point I forgot why I’m reading about sandwiches in the first place….and do I know it’s been 4 hours since my husband asked me to make him a new kind of sandwich????

    I’m kidding. I never actually did a whole 4 hours worth of research on sandwiches.

    All my life people have called me ‘intense’.

    Letting one’s mind wander without full intent to capture whatever is in the moment, when it hasn’t fully contemplated what is already before it, much less all the stuff it hasn’t yet discovered and enjoyed, like the art to be made, and science and literature and everything else to be read and contemplated and maybe used and practiced, seems like a waste to me.

    Even while driving, waiting in a long, long line with nobody around to talk to, if we choose to focus inward, the brain offers us rich fodder for contemplation that can feed our creativity.

    As an avid science fiction buff, when I am alone for long periods of time like driving many hours, I invent my own fun scenarios about aliens, talking plants, and humans who can shape shift into animals and really run with the wolves (shout out to Clarissa Pink Estes).

    As much as I love it, it seems to me there must be a chemical component
    to being in ‘the zone’. I don’t believe one can be ‘in the zone’ without
    solid focus.

    Like every other habit, developing focus requires
    practice. Yet, because we are not machines, we can reasonably expect our
    minds to wander. The key to keeping a focus habit intact, is what do we
    do when it does?

    Like a dog distracted by the squirrel, a simple trigger can bring us back should we find ourselves meandering down a negative path.

  • Yvette Gauff

    My mother tells me I kept her running to the Encyclopedia Britannica
    in my early years, as I had a voracious appetite for knowledge. I needed to know lots of things; “What is this? Why that?” To this day, it is not uncommon for me to answer a question with a question: “Why do you want to know?”

    From week to week I find the information shared in our class, the supportive materials and blog so interesting. Therein lies answers to questions I have had related to many things I have experienced in my life, or that I have observed in the lives of others, but didn’t really have understanding as to ‘why’.

    As threads are woven to create fabric, I am seeing an overwhelming common thread throughout the patterns of the lives of many I know, including myself. The negative, pessimism. DownSpiral existence.

    I was once told by an older gentleman who knows some things of my past, “When I look at your life, it’s a wonder you have accomplished as much as you have”. Because of my respect for his age, and position, I didn’t question his remark; however, as I learn and
    delve more in our ANI work, I think I have a better understanding of his comments. “Focus on taking care of yourself and your children”, he said. Focus…in this case, definitely honing in (or shall I say, “zoning in”) on the positive.

    “…we need to tell the brain what we want it to do, and to train it to focus and pay attention”.

    “We need to practice focus and attention even during idle time, to avoid letting our thoughts go off in a negative direction – resulting in anxiety, dread, fear or discomfort.”

    “So idle time spent day dreaming that goes in a negative direction is not healthy”.

    I found these statements to be profound, again seeing how, without specific directives, left to ourselves, without discipline, our lives can go awry. As a youngster I use to
    hide in music. Headphones on; music turned up. Momentary, reprieve, but probably
    not providing the best results.

    When taking the Optimism Test, I was disappointed (but no longer surprised) to find I have some ’hopelessness’ issues to work on. As one who finds it VERY EASY to, and spends much time encouraging others, providing them hope and direction for their lives, this scale shows I am lacking in the hope department. However, given what I am learning about positivity, it is clear I am to be mindful of, and focus on positivity in order to create that reservoir that will overflow and “wash away” the negativity.

  • Yolanda Smith

    If anyone had asked me if I considered myself an Optimist prior to taking this test and reading the editorials, I would have quickly said “yes”.  While I am optimistic in some areas of my life, for the most part pessimism has taken up residence for longer than I care to admit.

    In lieu of dressing ourselves in the title of pessimist, I believe that people tend to label it as being realistic, protective of oneself or dismissing it as “that’s just the way that I am”.

    The observation in the Mayo Clinic editorial was quite eye-opening. I never related pessimism to helplessness, depression or being at risk for poor health and premature death. These facts alone are enough to make one want to get their lives right!

    One of my favorite Bible scriptures is “My people perish for a lack of knowledge.” We spend billions of dollars of on cosmetics, diet products and all kinds of things to make us feel and look better, while the silent killer called pessimism, is diligently peeling away our very lives. As my mother used to say, “Who’da Thunk It”. . We just didn’t know.

    This revelation is literally life-changing. Understanding that being pessimistic affects you at the cellular level is disturbing yet liberating. As we are gaining more and more of this kind of information, we are blessed with an amazing responsibility and opportunity to help make a difference in the lives of others. People are searching for something to aid them in bettering their lives. For too long they have been offered surface, shallow, so-called solutions, for issues that run so deep.

    Knowledge most certainly is power!

Copyright © 2015 The Applied Neuroscience Institute