“Brain Fatigue” and the Best Thing to Do on a Practice Break

Whether we’re practicing, studying, or doing our taxes, there comes a point where our brains begin to get a little fatigued, our thinking gets a little sluggish, and it’s difficult to think productively and creatively (though tax preparation is probably not the best time to be flexing our creativity muscles).

Taking breaks is an important part of staying productive and getting past this “brain fatigue,” whether it’s the classic 50/10 split, the 25/5 “Pomodoro,” or the more unusual 52/17, but what should we be doing during our break time to best prepare for our next block of practice and maximize mental recovery? Chat with friends? Catch up on Facebook? Watch funny YouTube videos? Read a book? Go for a walk? Coffee break? Nap?

Enhancing creativity

There are indications that exercise could enhance creativity and other cognitive processes. Which is great, but for most of us, not motivation enough to lace up our running shoes and go for a run.

Knowing this, a pair of Stanford researchers conducted a series of studies to see if walking might be enough to give us a mental boost.

They rounded up 48 participants and asked them to complete a standard creativity test1 while sitting in a chair or while walking on a treadmill.

The test involves brainstorming as many different uses for a common object as possible, and is a measure of “cognitive flexibility” or the ability to avoid getting mentally stuck in one limited category. For instance, when given the prompt of “button,” one participant responded with alternate uses including “a doorknob for a dollhouse, an eye for a doll, a tiny strainer, to drop behind you to keep your path.”

Sitting vs. walking

81% of the participants improved performance on the test when walking, generating about 50% more ideas on average than while sitting. And it wasn’t just an increase in the number of ideas; they tended to come up with more creative ideas when walking too.

A follow-up study found that this boost in creativity lasted beyond the short period of time when participants were actively walking. There was a residual effect, where participants continued to experience greater creativity even after they sat back down for another round of creativity testing.

So rather than simply putting your instrument down and sitting around while glued to your phone (tempting though it may be), a short walk might actually be a great way to prepare you for your next 25 or 50 minutes of practice.

Where to walk?

But does this mean we ought to do laps around our practice room? Or do we actually need to go outdoors to make the most of our walk?

Studies suggest that where we walk may be an important factor in battling brain fatigue too.

A group of Scottish researchers were curious about the impact of different environments on our state of mind. Particularly, what difference a more natural “green” space might have relative to crowded, busy, urban environments.

So, they hooked up 12 Edinburgh University students to a portable EEG headset, and asked them to take a 1.5 mile walk through three different parts of Edinburgh as the headset measured their brain wave activity.

The first part of the walk took them through an urban shopping district, with lots of people, buildings, and some traffic. The second part of their walk went through a large nature area (sort of like Central Park in NYC) with lots of open green space, lawns, trees, and playing fields. And the final part of their walk took them through a busy, loud, crowded commercial district with heavy traffic.

Urban vs. green

Looking at the readings from each portion of their walk, researchers found that walking through the park reduced indicators of stress, and facilitated a more meditative state. In other words, the “green” space was more mentally restorative than walking around the city.

Other studies in the field of environmental psychology have made similar observations, which seem to suggest that natural settings do help us recover from stress and restore our attentional resources.

A University of Michigan study for instance, found that a walk through the campus arboretum was more effective than a walk through downtown Ann Arbor in helping participants recharge their mental batteries – and helped them perform better on mentally-demanding tasks. A phenomenon that has been observed in research on children with ADHD as well.

Take action

Even though taking my kids’ dog out to pee is pretty near the bottom of my list of favorite activities, I have to admit that a short walk around the block often does clear the cobwebs from my head and help me find my second wind on a long writing day (or during a marathon TurboTax session).

So the next time you’re practicing or studying and start to feel “brain fatigue” kick in, try going for a short stroll outside. And not through a busy, heavily trafficked area where there’s tons of stimuli that’s likely to grab your attention, or in an area where you have to be attentive to your surroundings for safety reasons (like a dark alley or busy intersection).

Try to find a quieter, calmer, nature-y place with some greenery, where your mind is free to wander and relax. See if that feels more restorative than catching up on Facebook, or grabbing a cup of that woefully sub-par coffee from the vending machine in the lounge!


  1. (the Guilford alternative uses test)

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4 Responses

  1. Reading this and I agree with everything that is written here. Even if it is all about writing, composing, practicing – indeed walking helps a lot. It gives me more idea as well on how to be creative on my next practice.

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