Easter: why does our brain feel so good on vacation? | Science

We have been very happy for a few days thinking that as soon as we finish this article we are going to enjoy the vacation that we so deserve. And it is that the benefits of a good vacation are felt even before they begin. Scientific studies show that simply looking forward to a future reward can be even more rewarding than the reward itself. It’s thanks to a small molecule called dopamine, which we’ll talk about later.

But before we continue, let’s ask a few questions. Are vacations really necessary? Why do we need them? And above all, what are the advantages of spending a few lazy days?

Rest increases cognitive flexibility

Although it may seem surprising, there is little scientific literature that explores the direct benefits of vacations on our brains. What seems indisputable is that they are essential. This was concluded by a 2016 study in which 46 workers from a Dutch company participated.

Workers had to pass a test in which they were given objects (for example, a hammer) and asked for the most uses in the least amount of time (construction tool, weapon, or paperweight). What they observed was that after 2-3 weeks of vacation, workers had greater cognitive flexibility. Or what amounts to the same, they were able to give more uses to the objects compared to the results obtained a few weeks before the holidays.

Most studies agree that, from a biological point of view, one of the main causes of this increase in cognitive flexibility – and the benefits of the holidays in general – is the reduction of stress.

We will all agree that work generates stress. But here we have to make a small aside: stress in itself doesn’t have to be bad. When it is punctual, it is usually even beneficial, since it activates mechanisms that help us carry out the daily actions of our work, such as meeting a deadline (this is what the authors of this article currently working).

The “other stress”, the one that has negative connotations for everyone, is chronic stress. It occurs when it is prolonged over time, either because we are constantly under pressure or because of situations that we cannot resolve. It generates fatigue, higher levels of anxiety, irritability and anger. And yes, it is definitely bad.

Recipe for a holiday that “recharges the batteries”

The main thing that a good vacation can do for our mental health is, precisely, to reduce chronic stress levels. By being inactive, our brain will be able to reverse, at least temporarily, the negative effects of stress. And here’s the key: for them to be truly effective, we need to make our holidays really free from the stress of work. That is, avoid continuing with pending tasks, responding to emails, etc.

On the other hand, it is essential to avoid holidays that generate new stressful situations, such as endless queues or prolonged periods with the in-laws.

Another key is to enjoy the wait. Why are we already happy to wait for the holidays? Mencionamos unos párrafos atrás la dopamina, that is produced in the neurons of a par de regiones del cerebro conocidas como Sustancia Negra (por su color oscuro al microscopio) y Área Tegmental Ventral (situadas en el centro de nuestro cerebro, más o menos detrás de ears).

These two regions, which in humans contain between 400,000 and 600,000 neurons, send axons to many areas of the brain. And thanks to the release of dopamine, they play a key role in the pleasant sensation that novelties and rewards generate. Therefore, knowing that the holidays are coming increases the dopamine levels in our brain and gives us that feeling of pleasure.

Likewise, the best vacations are the ones where we’re exposed to new things — like visiting different places — and rewards — like that seafood platter we’ve been waiting for all year. Of course, what is rewarding is completely subjective, and what is pleasurable for one person can create stress for others.

to profit or not to profit

This pleasure-generating system is also affected during chronic stress. Some studies show that high or chronic stress levels, such as those we are subjected to throughout the year in our working day, are able to cause a reduction in the amount of dopamine released or changes in the way which it is metabolized.

The worst thing is that the changes occur not only in the substantia nigra or in the ventral tegmental area, but also in the places where they send their axons. We have seen that chronic stress is even able to modify the number of dopamine receptors in the areas that receive its projections. When this happens, depressive behaviors often develop. Thus, a holiday that frees us from stress will help rebalance the dopaminergic system.

What is still not entirely clear is whether taking vacations for an extended period produces better effects than taking them staggered and for shorter periods.

In any case, a good holiday is good. So we encourage readers to find activities that make you feel good, recharge your energy and reduce stress, and balance your dopamine system. Good holidays!

John Perez Fernandez is Ramón y Cajal Researcher at CINBIO, Area of ​​Cell Biology, Department of Functional Biology and Health Sciences, University of Vigo.

Roberto de la Torre Martinez. Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.

This article was originally published on The conversation. here you can read the original.

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