One of the chapters of my book talks about what to do when concentration fails. For a book about rebuilding your capacity for attention, this may seem odd, but it's a fact of life that no matter how smart or focused you are, there are times when you hit a wall, or your mind just stops, and you need a break.
But not all breaks are the same: some are better than others at recharging your mental batteries, and some gig your conscious mind the break it needs while letting your subconscious continue to turn over a problem, and nudge closer to that moment when a solution or insight feels like it's just appeared out of thin air. Among Western thinkers, there was a term for this: Solvitor Ambulando, or "It is solved by walking."
PLOS One has a really good article by Ruth Ann Atchley, David L. Strayer, and Paul Atchley measuring the value of long-- in this case four-day long-- hikes on creativity. Turns out it's pretty substantial. Here's the abstract:
Adults and children are spending more time interacting with media and technology and less time participating in activities in nature. This life-style change clearly has ramifications for our physical well-being, but what impact does this change have on cognition? Higher order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are all heavily utilized in our modern technology-rich society. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that exposure to nature can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes such as these. Consistent with ART, research indicates that exposure to natural settings seems to replenish some, lower-level modules of the executive attentional system. However, the impact of nature on higher-level tasks such as creative problem solving has not been explored. Here we show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers. Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. We anticipate that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions. A limitation of the current research is the inability to determine if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, a decreased exposure to technology, or to other factors associated with spending three days immersed in nature.
This, by the way, helps explain why Silicon Valley is so successful: it's not just the presence of cool companies or Stanford and Berkeley, or immigrants: it's our fantastic network of parks and hiking trails, our proximity to beaches and the Bay, and the fact that Tahoe is a few hours away. Our ability to play hard really matters to our ability to work hard.
I think there's actually an interesting article to be written about geniuses at play, or what geniuses do when they take useful breaks. Darwin went for long walks on a path he built specifically to give him a place to think, and there are lots of other philosophers and scientists famous for walking when they needed to think deeply. We're accustomed to focusing on the working habits of creative people, or looking at their offices and desks for clues about what makes them productive; but maybe there's something to be discovered in the patterns of their recreation, too.