BY ANDREW DAVIS
Next Wednesday, after our inaugural Winter Wonderland celebration, our students will head home for Winter Recess. Why? Perhaps the most obvious reason for this school vacation is Christmas and Chanukah and the cultural norm to take an extended break during this time to celebrate and visit family. As an educator, the vacation provides much needed time to recharge and relax while also planning for the second half of the school year. For all of us, though, winter vacation can be good for our creativity. Yes, time away from school – and work – can improve creativity.
For the same reason that ideas often unexpectedly flow in the shower, vacation can often unleash new ideas and connections. School, academic classes in particular, asks students to focus. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is called on throughout the school day – and during the after school piano lesson or coaching of a new soccer defense – to help maintain the requisite attention. The prefrontal cortex is the conductor of the brain’s symphony and, at school, it is busy getting the brass to be on the beat, the woodwinds to be a bit louder, and the percussion section to start playing the right piece. Such an active prefrontal cortex reduces the brain’s ability to make unexpected connections, to be creative – because the second violin is listening to the conductor, he is not improvising with the oboe player.
When we go on vacation, we give the prefrontal cortex a break. With the conductor on vacation, the violin-oboe (and other!) improvisations commence. Because we are not asking for specific ideas – remember, no conductor – new ideas pop up. Many of us experience this in the shower. With no task at hand other than soap and shampoo and no screens to distract us, disparate parts of the brain that we don’t regularly allow to communicate, make new connections and we have creative “aha!” moments out of the blue. Another reason that showers inspire creativity is that we are often warm and comfortable in the shower, releasing dopamine, further inspiring creativity. Vacation can do the same thing. While delayed flights do not release dopamine, evenings in front of a warm fire and great smells from the kitchen do get the dopamine centers activated and thus creativity flows.
It is not just at school that the prefrontal cortex hinders creativity. Most (maybe all?) workplaces demand an active prefrontal cortex. With a greater emphasis placed on innovation in today’s workplace, many companies are looking for ways to provide the creative release that vacation – and showers – inspire. Walking meetings, off-sites, and the famed 20% time of early Google, are just a few ways that corporate America is attempting to provide the “organizational slack” needed for innovation.
While researching organizational slack for this piece, I found a number of academic papers that suggest that innovation and creativity needs some down time, slack, but not too much. So fitting for school as well. Our students and teachers will greatly benefit from this vacation. We will be ready, though, to come back and re-engage the prefrontal cortex come early 2018. I look forward to seeing your even more creative children then!