(Photo:Flickr/Grzegorz Łobiński)

Like the muscles of an athlete after physically taxing exercise, our brains also start to get strained and feel worn out after a lot of exertion, especially when dealing with tasks requiring a lot of concentration or repetition, researchers say. An article in the Wall Street Journal Asia highlights various studies to uncover the best way to relax one’s brain:

A University of Michigan study found that participants’ ability to pay attention and remember things when taking tests improved by 20 percent when they took study breaks in the form of arboretum walks. Researcher Marc Berman said the results held true even when participants went walking during snowy weather. Participants who walked down a busy city street reported no cognitive improvement.

The researchers said images of nature, which are interesting to look at, engage an “involuntary reaction” in a person, which the Wall Street Journal Asia reports, “comes into play when our minds are inadvertently drawn to something interesting that doesn’t require intense focus, like a pleasing picture or landscape feature.”

A separate study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology explored the benefit of coffee breaks as a way to rejuvenate the brain. While a caffeine buzz is certain, University of Bristol researchers found that the increased energy doesn’t always yield better work:

“In talking with attendees at a stress-management conference who had access to unlimited coffee during breaks, some reported feeling more stressed after drinking additional caffeine. The researchers followed up with a study of 64 coffee drinkers and found that men who drank more than their usual amount of coffee performed worse when working on a group assignment. … The same didn’t hold true for women, likely because they tend to perform better in groups, says Lindsay St. Claire, a lecturer at the University of Bristol in the U.K. who was part of the team that conducted the study … ‘The arousal from caffeine can prolong the arousal you would have from stressful situation,’ which can be detrimental, says Dr. St. Claire. So, she says, people should consider how keyed up they already are feeling before pausing for an additional cup of coffee.”

And sometimes people will push themselves to finish the task at hand — no matter how difficult — without taking a break, which was the subject of a recently published study in Psychological Science.

Researchers from Stanford University found that people who push themselves beyond what they think themselves capable of are successful if they believe they have unlimited willpower:

“Both groups reported feeling tired. But researchers subtly suggested in questionnaires to some participants that they had stamina that could be replenished, and this group appeared to overcome the fatigue. A possible reason is that forcing themselves to not think about being tired freed up some additional cognitive resources to work longer on the task at hand, says Veronika Job, a study author now at the University of Zurich.”

The researchers believe that, based on their findings, people can make lasting life changes based on their willpower.

“When you have a limited mindset, maybe you’ll be able to push yourself through a task, but in the evening you’ll think, ‘Now I’m done,”’ said Job. “Having a sense of increased willpower might make it easier for a person to say no to indulging in candy bars, even after a long day.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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