Semana Santa: ¿Por qué a nuestro cerebro le sienta tan bien unas vacaciones? | Ciencia

Semana Santa: ¿Por qué a nuestro cerebro le sienta tan bien unas vacaciones? | Ciencia

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

Rest increases cognitive flexibility

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

Workers were asked to take a test in which they were given objects (for example, a hammer) and asked for the greatest number of uses in the least amount of time (construction tool, weapon, or paperweight). What they observed is that, after 2-3 weeks of vacation, the workers had greater cognitive flexibility. Or what is the same, they were able to give a greater number of uses to the objects compared to the results obtained a couple of 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 of the benefits of vacations in general – is stress reduction.

We will all agree that work generates stress. But here we have to make a small aside: stress by itself does not have to be bad. When it is punctual, it is usually even beneficial, because 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 are working on right now).

The “other stress”, the one that has negative connotations for everyone, is chronic stress. It occurs when it is prolonged in time, either because we are under constant 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 “charges the batteries”

The main thing that a good vacation can do for our mental health is, precisely, reduce levels of chronic stress. By being idle, our brain will be able to reverse, at least temporarily, the negative effects of being stressed. And here comes the key: for them to be really effective, we have to ensure that our vacations really free us from the stress of work. That is, avoid continuing with pending tasks, answering emails, etc.

On the other hand, it is essential to prevent vacations from generating new stress situations, such as endless queues or prolonged periods with the in-laws.

Another key is to enjoy the wait. Why are we already happy waiting for the holidays? We mentioned dopamine a few paragraphs ago, which is produced in the neurons of a pair of brain regions known as the Substantia Nigra (because of its dark color under the microscope) and the Ventral Tegmental Area (located in the center of our brain, more or less behind the ears).

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

In the same way, the best vacations are those in which we are exposed to novelties – like visiting different places – and rewards – like that seafood platter we have 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 enjoy or not to enjoy

This system that generates pleasure is also affected during chronic stress. There are studies that show that high or chronic levels of stress, such as those we are subjected to throughout the year in our working day, are capable of causing a reduction in the amount of dopamine that is released or changes in how it is metabolized.

The worst thing is that the changes do not occur only in the Substantia Nigra or in the Ventral Tegmental Area, but also in the places where they send their axons. It has been seen that chronic stress is even capable of changing the number of dopamine receptors in the areas that receive its projections. When this happens, depressive behaviors often develop. Therefore, a vacation that frees us from stress will help to rebalance the dopaminergic system.

What is not yet entirely clear is whether taking vacations for a prolonged period provides better effects than taking them staggered and for shorter periods.

Either way, good vacations are good. So we encourage readers to find activities that make you feel good, recharge your energy and reduce your stress, and balance your dopaminergic system. Happy Holidays!

John Perez Fernandez is a Ramón y Cajal researcher at CINBIO, Cell Biology area, 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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