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What, Be Still?

July 01, 2015

Imagine sitting quietly in a room for ten minutes, doing nothing but being still. Could you — or your kids — handle it? Or would you, if given the option, self-administer electric shocks as a preferred alternative? That’s what more than half of the subjects chose to do in one research study — they gave themselves electric shocks rather than sit quietly with their thoughts and feelings.1

Being still isn’t easy. And it’s grown even harder since we’ve become accustomed to filling every microsecond with some form of distraction. Non-stop input — texts and apps and phone calls and websites and television and music — stretches the brain beyond optimal functioning, impairing focus, learning, retention, and more. There’s a problem here, and it’s called “cognitive overload”: more input than the brain can effectively handle. Studies have found youth particularly susceptible to overload, as their immature brains have developed fewer mechanisms to tackle so much. “Overload” can lead to ill effects on health, relationships  and academic success.2

Once upon a time, our brains enjoyed moments of relative stillness. Waiting in line and simply thinking. Riding in the car and simply looking. Walking down the street and simply observing. Our children’s developing brains especially need a break from the overload. Moments of stillness allow the brain to organize and process what it’s been exposed to in the classroom, on the sports field, in conversations with friends and family. A quiet mind allows the day’s learning to become consolidated in the brain’s “hard drive,” where it’s more accessible for recall.

We human beings need stillness in order to recharge our batteries … to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily … and control our emotions … everything we need to do in a given day.3

Here are some ways parents can impose stillness:

  • In longer car rides, enforce at least 15 minutes without screens, conversation, or radio.
  • At meals, allow nothing that uses batteries or electricity.
  • Thirty minutes before bedtime, put technology to rest. Keep phones and laptops in the kitchen until morning.
  • Turn off the television when it’s just providing background noise. Use the mute button to silence the commercials.

Remember that our children’s eyes are often on us. If we don’t set an example of regular stillness, we shouldn’t expect them to be still either.

References & Citations
  1. Wilson, Timothy D. et al. “Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind.” Science,345. Issue 6192.
  2. Frein, S., Jones, S., and Gerow, J.E. 2013. "When It Comes to Facebook There May be More to Bad Memory than Just Multitasking." Computers in Human Behavior (29:4), pp. 2179-2182. Also: Calderwood, C.; Ackerman, P. L.; Conklin, E. M. (2014). "What else do college students "do" while studying? An investigation of multitasking." Computers and Education 75: 19–29.