Written by : Transcript – Why Your Brain Needs a Summer Vacation With Dr. Henry Mahncke 

Transcript – Why Your Brain Needs a Summer Vacation With Dr. Henry Mahncke

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Why Your Brain Needs a Summer Vacation With Dr. Henry Mahncke





[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 475 of Live Happy Now. It’s summertime. If your body feels like it needs a break, guess what. So does your brain. I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I’m joined by Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science and BrainHQ, who is here to talk about why vacations are so good for your brain.


As you’re about to find out, when you go on vacation, you’re giving your brain all kinds of ways to stay healthy and happy. Henry is here to explain how that works, how to make the most of your vacation, and how to keep those benefits going once you get home. Let’s have a listen.




[00:00:41] PF: Dr. Mahncke, thank you so much for coming and being a guest on Live Happy Now.


[00:00:46] HM: It’s a pleasure, Paula. It’s so nice to meet you.


[00:00:48] PF: Oh, I’m really excited to talk to you because this is the perfect time to talk about taking a vacation. As you know, we’re in the middle of our summer of fun promotion. We’re trying to get people to have more fun this summer. For anyone who’s feeling guilty about having too much fun or taking a vacation, you actually have science to back all of this up. Can you tell us what you mean when you say that our brains need a vacation?


[00:01:12] HM: Our brains do need a vacation, and a lot of people think that the reason the brain needs a vacation is it’s worked too much, and it needs to rest. There’s a little bit of truth to that, but the bigger truth is the brain needs a vacation because brains thrive on change. The reason we have a brain and the reason our brains stay healthy is because our brain can adapt and learn and do new things. A vacation, as much as it is a little bit of a rest for our bodies and our brains, also represents an opportunity to reset ourselves, do something new, provide some interest, some challenge, and as you said, fun. That’s incredibly important for brain health.


[00:01:49] PF: When you improve that brain health by meeting that need, what does that mean for our physical well-being?


[00:01:55] HM: Well, the brain and the body are, of course, intensely connected, right? Sometimes, people think about the brain as it’s our spirit and our soul and our mind and everything that makes us us. That is, of course, true. At the same time, the brain is something else, right? It is a wet piece of gooey tissue that sits inside your skull, right? It’s a part of your biological body, just the way your heart or your liver and your stomach is.


In that sense, in the same way we can think about, hey, what are the things that keep the heart healthy, what are the things that keep the digestive system healthy, we can start to think and understand what are the things to keep the brain healthy. Again, in that biological organ system, what does the brain need to thrive and make itself healthy? We can then, of course, see what those effects are on physical health as well.


Let’s start with that. What does the brain need to keep itself healthy? Well, most important thing to know about the brain is as much as it all that stuff is true where it’s your sense of self and your spirit and your mind, hey, it has a purpose. Sometimes, people ask me, I’m a brain scientist, what’s the brain for? Usually, people think, “Well, the brain’s for thinking, right? We all like to think. We feel very smart when we think. We solve the Wordle, and we’re like, “Oh, I got a great brain,” right?


As a biologist, I got to tell you that’s not what the brain is for. The brain’s not for thinking. Nobody cares if you can think or not. What your brain is for is to help you change to adapt yourself to new situations. The brain is a learning machine. In fact, that’s why humans are so amazing, right? We can live and thrive everywhere from the deserts of the Sahara to the ice fields of the far north to the urban jungles of San Francisco. The reason we can do that is because we have this incredible brain that adapts and changes, figures out what we need to do to survive in these different places and let us do that.


That’s really what the brain is for. The brain is for learning and adapting and change. What that means is what makes the brain healthy is, well, the opportunity to learn and adapt and change on a regular basis. What makes the brain unhealthy is just getting in a rut and doing the same old thing over and over again. If you’re in a rut and you’re doing the same old thing over and over again, you don’t really need a brain. You can be a headless chicken, right? Just go on about the same thing you’ve always been doing.


That’s why vacation is such an important issue for brain health. Many of us are leading lives where, hey, we are pretty good at something, and so we go to work and we do it every day. That’s great. We earn money, pay the rent, succeed in our careers, but maybe not so healthy for our brains just to be doing the same thing over and over again. That vacation as much as it is an opportunity to reset is an opportunity to build and strengthen brain health as well.


[00:04:35] PF: Oh, that’s terrific. When we do go on vacation, you talk that we have new challenges that we encounter. Can you talk about that, like the new challenges that our brains present us with when we go on a vacation?


[00:04:48] HM: A lot of people go on a vacation to someplace new, right? Even if it’s just as simple as a road trip to a town down the road or maybe it’s as elaborate as, hey, I got on a cruise ship, and I went to the Caribbean. Going to someplace new, oh, my God, what an exciting, challenging, positive thing for your brain and your brain health.


The simplest things are new and interesting and challenging when you’re traveling and somewhere new, right? Going out to the store and buying bread represents something new and different. You do that all the time. You can do that an autopilot in your hometown. But you’re somewhere else and you got to figure out the store. Maybe you’re in a different country. You got to figure out the currency. All that represents learning and change that your brain has to do.


Think about navigation, right? Finding your way from one place to the other. Often we’re doing that in autopilot in our regular lives. Because we are commutes, we are so worked out. Now, our brain has to look around. We have to notice. What are the visual signals that tell us where we’re going? What are the things that are different that we hear or we smell or sometimes we taste as we’re moving around the world?


All that represents exciting new input to the brain, and that’s driving attention systems. It’s driving reward systems. It’s driving novelty detection systems. All those systems flood our brain with neurochemicals that help promote brain plasticity, brain change, and brain health all at the same time. That kind of just being in a new environment and all of the – I say challenges but I don’t want to make it sound like they’re bad. Just sort of the excitement of being somewhere new is so healthy.


Then, of course, when we’re on vacation, often we’re going to do something new, too, right? We’re not going to work and doing the same old, the same old. Even if it’s a pretty relaxing vacation, we’re still breaking those habits. Maybe we’re reading a book that we haven’t read. Maybe we’re baking in a way we haven’t had a chance to be in the kitchen. Maybe we’re interacting with friends and family members we don’t get to see. Maybe we’re doing something exciting in the outdoors. All of that just flooding the brain with new information and causing it to rewire and adapt itself to that new situation.


I’m making it sound like hard work, but the brain loves this. That’s what the brain is designed to do.


[00:06:51] PF: Right. It gets little badges every time it does something, right? It’s kind of like I can see this gamification of it where it’s like, “Oh, I just won my adventure badge,” right?


[00:07:01] HM: I think that’s a great way to think about it. I think that’s a great way to think about vacation. We want it to be restful and relaxing and a change, but that doesn’t mean we need to do nothing with our brain. It means we should give our brain something that’s exciting and positive that it thrives on. Like you say, a little bit of adventure, a little bit of novelty. Earn those badges, like you say.


[00:07:18] PF: What’s right for one person is going to be different than what’s right for another because as you were talking, I was thinking I’ve got a very good friend, and he likes to go to the same place every time. He could go anywhere in the world he wants, and it’s like he’s going to go – he’s got three places he goes every year, and he goes to the same restaurant. He does the exact same thing. What drives that, and how could someone who does that mix it up and give their brain a little bit more of what they need?


[00:07:46] HM: Well, to sort of take what you’re suggesting there and run with it, I do think that what’s good for everyone is some novelty, and a little bit of challenge, and a little bit of reward, and a little bit of excitement and attention. I think that’s universally good for everyone. In the same way that when you think about your heart health, what’s good for everyone is, hey, raising your heartbeat by a certain amount for a certain amount of time, right? That’s going to build heart health in every single person on this planet.


If you think about heart health again, just to go with that metaphor, the way you do it might be different than the way I do it, right? Maybe you’re the kind of person who loves to go for a swim, and I’m the person who likes to ride a bike, right? Hey, those are both valid methods of improving our heart health. One’s good for you and one’s good for me. We’re both going to benefit.


When I think about brain health, I think about it in exactly the same way. All of our brains need some challenge, some novelty some reward in order to stay healthy. But what you find challenging and novel and rewarding might be quite different than what I do, right? Some people might like to go on adventure travel, right? They want to go to a different place every single time. They want to throw themselves into the novelty. They want to have a hard time figuring out where to buy that loaf of bread in a new place. That’s just what they thrive on.


Other people like your friend, maybe they want to go someplace that’s a little more familiar. But it still represents a big change from their everyday life is my bet, right? In that sense, even though maybe they’ve been there and they’ve gotten familiar with it, that brain is still getting that sort of sharp change from what I was doing in the office or wherever they might work, and they are someplace new.


A lot of people, maybe they have a favorite place they go to. They always go to grandmas for two weeks in the summer. Or maybe they have a cabin they like to rent or something like that. But even in those places, I think it’s great for the brain, and I think it’s a good way to think about a vacation, to go someplace that’s familiar but still change and mix it up a little bit there. Try a new activity you haven’t tried before. Go to a new restaurant. Find your way through town in a new and different way, right?


I think many of us have memories of when we were kids of visiting our relatives, and not every kid’s memory of visiting their relatives is all that [inaudible 00:09:55]. A lot of kids are kind of bored when they go to visit their relatives. Boredom is actually kind of a sign that maybe this is not so good for your brain because there’s nothing exciting or interesting or challenging or different about it, and so mixing it up a little bit in that way. You’re going to a place that you find comfortable and familiar can be a good activity for your brain.


[00:10:14] PF: That brings up a great point because as you said, kids can find visiting relatives a little bit boring, so can spouses. What if that is what is planned for your summer vacation, and it’s something, yes, you’re going to get away but you’re just not that excited? Say you’re going to, yay, go spend the whole time with the in-laws and all that. How do you take a trip that you’re maybe not exuberant about and still turn it into something that’s going to be good for you?


[00:10:42] HM: Yes, and good for your brain. I think the art of it there is picking some activities that are going to be new and interesting while you’re there. I don’t think there’s many people, whether it’s kids or spouses or even family members, that necessarily enjoy just going sitting in a living room for four different days and visiting with people.


I’m in a good position to talk about this. I just actually got back myself from a week of vacation. I went to beautiful Lake Anna, which is a wonderful lake in Virginia. I got to visit with my mom and my sister and my two nieces. My wife came along which was really wonderful of hers because we were visiting the in-laws at some level.


[00:11:18] PF: I promise she didn’t call me.


[00:11:20] HM: She might have. I think in that sense of brain stimulating and a brain-healthy activity for everyone because we got to go do there, and we did a whole bunch of new things we hadn’t never really done before, right? Got to take a boat out on the lake and drive a boat and things like that that are pretty outside of my normal experience and my wife’s normal experience.


In that sense from a brain perspective, creating those opportunities for novelty and challenge and excitement and even passion if I may put it that way in terms of doing something new that both going to build brain health. I think also build something that’s a remarkable experience for someone who maybe other aspects of the visit are not really quite what the –




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After you place that order, be sure to select podcast in the survey and then select Live Happy Now in the drop-down menu that follows. Now, let’s get back to Dr. Henry Mahncke and hear what he has to say about taking your brain on vacation.




[00:14:07] PF: Sometimes, when we come back from a vacation, we feel energized. We’re ready to dive back into things. Sometimes, when we come back vacation, we actually are like, “Oh, my God. I’m exhausted. I need more vacation.” I think part of that is what we do with our brains on a vacation, right? If you go on a vacation where at the end it’s kind of boring, it’s a little bit frustrating, you didn’t really get to get out of your normal routine. When you bounce back, that exhaustion you feel a little bad as your brain actually telling you something that you should probably listen to.


Or on the other hand, if you go on a vacation and I’m not saying you should wear yourself to the point of exhaustion on your vacation, but if you go on your vacation and you’ve done some novel interesting things and something really peppy, something out of your standards for some of that period of time, that’s going to revivify your brain. I think you’re going to get back from your vacation with a little bit more pep in your steps as you get back to your everyday life.


[00:15:00] PF: Yes. I’ve had those experiences where we’re on a trip and I’m like, “Yes, this is okay.” I’m not thinking like, “Hey, it’s not like I’m not having the time of my life, but I’m having a good time.” Then I’m amazed when I get home how much better I feel. My actual recollection of the trip is better than how I felt on the trip. What going on there?


[00:15:21] HM: Well, a lot of things, and it’s a great point. First of all, I think it’s worth calling out that that sense of mood that you talk about, right? That feeling of energy and so forth. I think a lot of people think about that in a very psychological framework, and that’s an okay framework to think about it. I’ve worked with a lot of psychologists, and that’s a wonderful way to think.


As a neuroscientist, it’s important for me to also point out that you feel that way because of literally again how the health of your brain is working as an organ inside of your skull, right? A lot of people might be familiar with the idea that mood is influenced by certain kinds of neurotransmitters or neurochemicals, right? The most commonly prescribed form of an anti-depressant, of course, is an SSRI, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. People are familiar with the idea that there’s this chemical called serotonin in their brain that relates to mood in some complex way.


People are probably also familiar that there’s a neurochemical in their brain called dopamine, right? A lot of people think about it as a pleasure chemical. That’s not quite right. Your brain releases dopamine when you’ve done something that has been successful, and your brain says, “Hey. Whatever that was, rewire yourself to make it more like that.” It turns out that succeeding at things makes our brain feel good, and that’s why we feel good when we’re succeeded at things. Then certain kinds of drugs can hijack that.


My point then is that I think we know that things like serotonin and dopamine and other things like acetylcholine and noradrenaline, they pump in our brain, and they affect our mood and our outlook and our emotional stability and just how bright we feel. What that means is if you can figure out ways to manipulate those neurochemicals, again not by taking drugs but by having real world experiences, hey, you’re going to end up as you say with a brain that’s going to feel brighter and sharper and peppier and more well-rested and in a good mood and more resilient to be able to kind of take the peaks and valleys of life.


How do we pump those kinds of neurochemicals? Well, you pump things like noradrenaline and serotonin as you’re having new experiences that challenge your brain, right? You pump that dopamine when you do something on vacation where you have even a vacation goal and you set it and you achieve it for yourself, right?


I read a chapter of this book. I took this new route through this town that I was in and so forth. That pumps some dopamine. Those kind of stuff, those changes last for a long, long time in your brain. When you get back to work, your brain does feel brighter. We know this a little bit if I can say because we know from scientific experiments around brain training that we can manipulate these kinds of neurochemicals in the brain, and it can have long lasting effects.


For example, in the lab that I worked in for my PhD, a colleague of mine has shown quite beautifully that if you can artificially with electrodes stimulate the brain to release things like acetylcholine and these other neuromodulators, you can actually make the brain learn faster and reorganize itself better.


Then in a beautiful study funded by the National Institutes of Health, they showed that people who did a certain kind of brain training where they made their brain faster with computerized brain exercises, they actually showed that that reduced the incidence of depressive symptoms in these adults who did this brain training for years after they finished the brain training. That’s because the brain had pumped all of this acetylcholine and dopamine and adrenaline, serotonin as a result of doing this brain training. That left the brain in fundamentally a resilient and more happier state after people had done it.


I think a good vacation is like that, right? If you organize it so that you’re doing things that are novel and exciting and challenging, you’re going to rewire your brain in a helpful way and come back with a better brain to dive back into regular life.


[00:18:58] PF: That’s amazing. Now, talking about regular life, some people can’t afford a vacation this year or don’t have the time to go on a vacation. They’re going to do what we have now come to know as staycations and –


[00:19:09] HM: I’ve enjoyed many a staycation myself.


[00:19:11] PF: Yes. As they’re listening to this maybe feeling a little bit wistful like, “Gosh, I wish I could go away and change things,” how do we apply these same principles to a getaway at home?


[00:19:23] HM: That’s a great question, and I’m a big believer in a staycation. I’ve done a number of great staycations in my life and two thoughts about it. First of all, I think the art to a good staycation is actually to put aside work. It’s all very nice to say I’m going to stay home for three days or two days or one day or a week and not work. But you have to actually not work during that period of time, right? You got to put your out-of-office email on, disconnect from your phone. Otherwise, your brain just gets pulled back into the rut that you’re already in. If your brain is pulled back into the rut that you’re already in, it’s not going to feel like a vacation. It’s not going to be very good for brain health.


Part one of a staycation is actually do it. Part two of the staycation from a brain health perspective is to take those same kind of concepts about going somewhere else on a vacation and apply them at home. If you are on a staycation, maybe don’t go out for lunch at the place you’ve always gone out to, right? Well, maybe go out once because you haven’t had a chance a while. But think of it as a place to explore where you live through the eyes of a stranger, if I may put it that way, right? What would someone do if they were coming to your town, your village, your city, your neighborhood for the first time?


Try some restaurants you haven’t tried before. Take some walks you haven’t tried before. There’s probably activities in your town or your neighborhood that you’ve never done because you’ve been too busy and make it part of your staycation to say, “Hey, I’m going to be like a visitor here. I’m going to be like a tourist. I’m going to see the sites. I’m going to do the activities. I’m going to do all of that kind of stuff.”


At that point, your own town that you may feel like you know backwards and forwards like the back of your hand, well, you’re going to be seeing it through new eyes. Of course, that’s going to drive those brain-healthy benefits around about increasing your attention and sharpening your sense of reward and just driving all that novelty and new learning into your brain. Again, put aside that work and see your town through those fresh eyes.


The most important thing, I think, again for your mental health and your brain health is to get out of that rut. Get out of that sense of, “Hey, I could do this even if I was a headless chicken. I don’t need a brain to go about my life.” Make sure your brain gets put to work and discovering what’s new and exciting fun about where you live.


[00:21:30] PF: Well, that’s terrific. I love that advice. If there’s anything that National Lampoon taught us, it’s that sometimes vacations don’t go like you planned. What about those cases?


[00:21:40] HM: That’s part of a vacation.


[00:21:42] PF: So you have – I’m a planner. I’m like – I can tell you what’s exactly going to happen, but it doesn’t happen as you plan. How do you do it then? How do you let your brain enjoy this moment when the flight gets canceled or things are just – the hotel’s not what it showed up on the website or things like this. When things aren’t going like you planned, how do you and your brain make the most of this?


[00:22:11] HM: Well, I understand being a planner, for sure. I think it’s important to plan a little bit for your vacation. My wife’s more of a planner than I am. But in both of our cases, I would say that if you have no plan, it can be you may not get the challenge and interest out of your vacation that you could have, right?


I mean, if you go to Paris and have no idea what you’re going to do, you might not actually benefit as much as if you make a little bit of thoughts of, “Oh, I’ve heard the Champs-Élysées is nice, and maybe I should see Notre Dame Cathedral,” right? But that being said, all plans eventually get blown up on vacation. Every single person knows that. You can plan it out to the minute and, like you say, you miss a train, or the restaurant isn’t good, or your kids don’t really feel like enjoying the museum the way you thought they would.


Here, again, I come back to that thought we had at the beginning of this conversation which is the reason that you have the big, fancy, elaborate, complex brain that you do is because as a result, you can adapt and change and see the best in just about anything. I have found in my own life that there’s a moment where you have to pause and just release the idea that you were going to do this activity or see this site or go on this particular journey.


It always feels bad for just a moment, but I think it’s healthy for your brain and healthy for your spirit and certainly helpful for the people you’re on vacation with to let that go and realize, “Hey, there’s something that’s going to be just as interesting, just as exciting, just as fun to do.” That wasn’t the thing you were thinking of, but it’s going to be right there in front of you while you’re on vacation as well.


I think it’s less around kind of that checklist of did I check everything off my box when I’m on vacation and more realizing that what your brain wants and what your mind wants and, frankly, what your soul and your spirit wants it’s just that sense of something different, something new, something exciting, something with a little bit of interest and challenge to it.


If you can just take that thought and let it go, hey, this didn’t work out, and let’s look at the next thing, whether it’s going to be going back to the hotel and doing a puzzle or sitting down and reading a book or finding what’s right to your right that you’ve never looked at before as you’ve been walking down the street. Really looking to find what’s exciting and compelling and interesting about that I think can rescue a lot of vacations in that way.


[00:24:21] PF: Absolutely. So then when we come back, now this is really common, people come back and they’re refreshed. They go to work on Monday. They’re like, “Oh, my God. I had the best time.” You go talk to them two hours later and they’re back in their work. “Oh, I’m not happy. I’m mad about this.” How do we keep that rejuvenation that we come back with? How do we kind of extend that in our lives and make that last a little bit longer because it not only helps us? It helps our co-workers.


[00:24:48] HM: Yes. Well, I think one of the best ways is for some period of time to almost re-engage and replay that vacation with you and someone you went on it with, whether it’s a friend or a family member or even just yourself as the case may be. The brain’s a time machine, and what I mean by that is we have an unbelievable ability to recreate an experience simply by thinking about this, right?


We know this as brain scientists. If you teach a rat to run a maze, you can see what neurons in the rat’s brain activate as it runs the maze. Then when that rat is resting or goes to sleep, you can see those same neurons get activated in the same order. We see the rat running the maze, so to speak, just by thinking about it or sleeping about it. That’s what the brain does. That’s incredible.


We can do the same thing, right? We can take that short mental break at work or when we come home from a day, and we can give ourselves permission to replay the best parts of that vacation to ourselves and remind ourselves what the fun or the excitement or the challenge or the interest was. That’s got two great aspects to it.


First of all, from a brain health perspective, that’s great, right? You’re reactivating your brain in this really exciting and compelling way. You’re bringing back all those pluses to your brain health and to your mind and your spirit as you’re doing it. In that sense, you’re extending your vacation just a little bit.


[00:26:06] PF: I love it and at no extra charge.


[00:26:08] HM: And at no extra charge. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to go on a new vacation to create some new memories to replay, but that’s okay. We should all be doing that. We should all be doing –


[00:26:15] PF: That’s terrific. You have given us a lot to work with here. I really appreciate you coming on the show and talking about this.


[00:26:23] HM: My pleasure.




[00:26:28] PF: That was Dr. Henry Mahncke, talking about how a vacation can boost your brain. If you’d like to learn more about BrainHQ or follow them on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on this podcast episode. You’ll also find a link to get a 20% discount on any of BrainHQ’s brain training programs.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Live Happy Now. If you aren’t already receiving us every week, we invite you to subscribe wherever you get your podcast. While you’re there, feel free to drop us a review and let us know what you think of the show.


That’s all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.



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