Neuroscience and Being ‘Busy’

download (64)We all know that mental stimulation is good for our brains and, more generally, for our wellbeing. But what about when we complain about being ‘too busy’? Are we moaning about something that is actually good for us?

Or does the stress that can come from being too busy outweigh any of the mental benefits we receive from it?

A recent neuroscience study may take us one step closer to answering this question.

The study

Scientists from the University of Dallas and the University of Alabama recently studied 330 healthy men and women ages 50 to 89 years old. They first asked them questions, including:

  • How often do you have too many things to do each day to actually get them all done?
  • How often do you have so many things to do that you go to bed later than your regular bedtime?

The researchers then awarded each a “busyness score,” based on their answers and then participants were tested to measure their cognitive abilities. This included their brain’s processing speed, working memory, episodic long-term memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge.

Tests included viewing two strings of numbers and determining whether they were the same or different; looking at boxes on a computer screen and maintaining the location of a blue token; and reading words presented in turn on a computer screen, and then recalling them.

The study authors concluded the following:

“Higher levels of busyness were associated with better cognition in adults aged 50-89.”

“Individuals who reported greater day-to-day busyness tended to have better processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge, and these relationships persisted after controlling for age.”

Results were especially impressive for episodic memory, which is the memory of autobiographical events.

What does this mean for organisations?

So, being busy can be good for our brains. Before management and leadership jump on this and use it as a reason to squeeze more out of employees, we need to note several things:

  • This study was conducted amongst aging individuals
  • It is only one study and the findings have not been backed up by other studies yet
  • The study does not answer the question of whether cognitive function is improved by busyness – or if good cognitive function in the first place promotes the ability to be busy?
  • Stress can also be associated with being busy – and this could outweigh any benefits associated with mental function

On the fourth point, stress has been shown to impair certain ‘types’ of thinking; when we are stressed, our natural, uncontrolled stress responses tend to inhibit our higher thinking abilities.

But the lead study author said the following in relation to this:

“Although it was possible for busyness to have negative relationships with cognition, our study shows favorable associations between busyness levels and mental function.”

More in-depth studies are needed on younger populations before these findings are applied to our working lives; but for now we can take comfort in the fact that being ‘busy’ may be doing us at least some good.