Sometimes your body and especially your mind needs a break. You can usually notice this when your mind begins to wonder aimlessly while you are trying to concentrate; or when anything you do makes you want to do something else, often something that will seem more interesting. These are the definite signs of mind fatigue. Your brain is telling you that it needs some downtime. While there are many ways to help your mind relax, you shouldn't be lulled into thinking that the kind of downtime your brain requires involves watching TV for hours on end.
What your brain is looking for is mostly a way for it to relax by thinking about it's own experiences, work out it's own issues and focus on it's own goals. Basically, your mind is looking for some free time to wander around in it's own world. The best way to help your brain do that is to go out into the nature and just observe life as it happens around you. This maybe surprising to some, but in this day and age our brains are constantly bombarded by images, stimulated by the world around us, leaving almost no time for it to just wander and relax.
You brain relaxes most when it's attention is not occupied by the world around it. You can experience it, after a good work out, when you take a shower. If you are really tired after the exercise, you're brain will wander from one topic to another as you stand under the hot, relaxing jet of water. This is how your brain reexamines the information it has acquired during the previous day or night. It sorts through all of the data it has acquired, thinks of solutions to problems you are facing or even appreciates the little nuances not fully apparent in the novel you've read or a movie you've watched. The basic theme here is that your brain needs time to process all of sensory inputs it had triggered and all of the information it has received. It does that best when you don't force your brain into thinking or doing anything. And watching TV is not going to help you do that.
Watching TV is a passive form of information overload for your brain. This is usually evident when watching TV when you are tired. Sometimes, after work, all you want to do is plop your butt onto the couch and watch TV for the rest of the evening, hoping that this experience will help you recharge and get ready for the next day grind. Yet, after watching the TV for next four hours, you can't seem to fall asleep. You lie in bed, tossing and turning, your mind continuously jumping from one train of thought to another. This seemly mindless thought wandering is the result of your brain being so tired it has no choice but to force you to let it relax and reexamine all of the information it has received throughout the day.
You're innocent attempt at helping your mind relax has actually made it worse. When you watch TV, the sensory information that is transmitted through the wires to your television through to your vision and into your brain is so vast and so intense that any chance your brain might have had to evaluate the events of the day is gone completely. It now has to focus on absorbing this new stream of information, making connections, recognizing place settings, evaluating emotions and, if the movie or TV show is an engaging one, trying to figure out the plot. Even though most of the information clues are already provided, the speed at which a movie or a TV show presents information leaves little time or energy for the brain to process it adequately. And, as previously stated, the time for processing of information acquired throughout the day has now been dedicated to absorbing this new information.
Now that you are finished with your TV watching experience and have forced yourself to go to bed, you do have to get up early the next day, the falling asleep thing just ain't happening. Why is that?
The answer, as many answers to complex problems always are, is simple. You have overloaded your brain with information and it needs time to think it over, organize it, put it into it's own compartments and discard information it finds unnecessary. After all, most of the things we encounter on daily basis are not necessary to our survival, so our mind is genetically predisposed to discard them. This only happens, however, after it has analyzed everything and decided that what's not needed anymore.
In real life, the events rarely move as fast as they do on TV. In almost all cases, an event that takes a half hour to unfold on your TV screen, would take hours, days, months or even years to happen in real life. So our brains, adept as they are at interpreting real life events in real life time, now have to process all of this information compressed into a half an hour experience. It's a job not even the fastest computer on earth can handle without blowing a gasket. We are just not built that way. Maybe in a few thousand years, if our civilization continues on this technological path, we will be able to process information that fast. But as it stands right now, we can't do it. Most of us can't at least. There may some savants out there who can survive by processing these inordinate amounts of data, but they are few and probably lacking in other departments. So we, as humans, process real life events in real life time. And TV events are not real life events and TV time is not real life time. Remember that!
So after you've had a long day at the office, followed by a few hours of mindless and maybe even engaging TV watching, you still can't fall asleep. You toss and turn. You think of house your or your car. You imagine what it would be like to win a lottery. You analyze the latest stock market news. You experience some weird thoughts that no one but you should know about. You get up, you leave the bedroom and go downstairs to watch some more TV in hopes that it will put you to sleep. You watch TV, glancing every thirty minutes at the red lights of clock next to the television. You can't fall asleep, so you keep flipping the channels until you come across a movie you've seen a while ago and wouldn't mind watching it again. You put your head on the couch pillow, cover yourself with your blanket and finally fall asleep. It's 3:30 in the morning and you have to get up in less then three hours. The next day is pretty much a repeat of this one. If you have ever experienced this kind of behaviour before chances are you need to let your brain relax a bit, chill out.
After watching TV your mind needs to process the information and it does so by running through all of the details at the only time that you allow it to rest, before sleep. A modern day human, in a western civilization, is pounded by so much information and so often that our brains don't have the time to absorb it all properly. The only time our minds are not under this assault is before we fall asleep. This is the time that the brain uses to make sense of things and organize them properly for later retrieval and processing.
In my opinion, this is probably the main reason for epidemic of insomnia that plagues many nations these days. I am not a doctor or a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but from my personal experience and from observing others I have come to believe that the information overload is are biggest issue we face, when it comes to battling stress, insomnia and general boredom that we all experience. In the words of economists, we are experiencing the diminishing returns on the value that technology pervading our lives today brings us.
The solution to this problem is, of course, simple. If you ever been camping or spent a day out in the wild, in nature, you always sleep better afterwards and wake up feeling refreshed and reinvigorated. It is irrelevant whether it's the fresh air or the fact that you are experiencing life at a pace that our minds are designed for. When we are among nature, our natural environment, we feel better afterwards. Our minds relax. Our brain has a chance to wander about things that we've learned and witnessed. This is the best way to let your brain and your body take a break. Observing nature is not taxing on our neural circuits, it's almost instinctual. We've been a part of nature for thousands of years before, brick and mortar confined us to our present environment. Our minds are most relaxed when we observe nature. Just think how many people would love to spend summers at a cottage and near a lake. It's like our brains long for us to go back to a natural habitat. Why do you think some of the happiest people in the world are the ones living the closest to nature? It's like being close to home: comforting, safe and relaxing.
For those so inclined to stay at home and still have the ability to let their mind relax, I say there are two things you can do. First, you can read a book. It is probably one of the most relaxing and brain stimulating activities you can do.
Reading a book is a slower pace method of absorbing the information. It is actually slower than real life pace. And you have control over that pace. You can pause mid sentence, or mid page and ponder the story you were reading or reexamine the information you have learned. You can re-read a sentence to make sure you've understood the intended meaning. You're brain has pretty much nothing to do after you've finished reading because the pace was slow enough for it to accomplish all of it's sorting and organizing as you read. It might even have had enough time to begin analyzing the days events. You might have experienced this when reading a particularly slow paced book, you're mind sometimes would wander away from the main storyline. When this happens, it is a clear signal that you should try the second sure step to letting your brain relax, staring at wall for a half hour or so.
Staring at the wall or a ceiling or just looking outside for twenty or more minutes is an excellent way to let your brain recharge. This is akin to meditation with free will. You're letting your mind pick the topics it wants to think about even if it might seem to you like you are directing the thought process. It's the best way to relax your mind in the city. Stare at the wall if you don't like looking outside or just observe the city if you live in an apartment with a good view. It might feel strange or weird at first. You might be bored. Actually you will feel bored, but you have to persevere through the first few minutes. You mind will jump from one unrelated thought to another and this is desirable. In the end you will come up with answers to problems you couldn't solve, make the decisions you couldn't make, set goals you didn't know where important to you and have your brain ready for the next days challenges fresh and reenergized. It works like a charm.
To conclude my not so short thought here, taking a break is paramount to a healthy brain and a sharp mind. So take a break, get out to see nature and enjoy life. Let your mind relax the way it was meant to. Go hiking, read a book or just look out your window. It's amazing what difference it can make.