What is nothingness? What does our brain do when it's actually not focused on something? Why does our mind wander, and why should we even care? The answer to all these questions is in your head — or, to be more specific, in your Default Mode Network.
Neuroscientists like to put people under fMRI scanners to study how the brain responds to specific stimuli. This is how we learn about the brain's inner workings and understand that some stimuli, such as watching inspiring historical documentaries, are better for us than other stimulants such as viewing violent videos. Though that doesn't mean we practice what we learn, scientific consensus helps us separate fact from fiction.
In one such study, just over a decade ago, some neuroscientists were going about their neuroscientist-business, figuring out how memory retrieval works. (To help us not forget our keys, yet again).
In the study, volunteers were taught a list of words and shown pictures of the objects the words corresponded to. Think of it as having to memorize the names for the different lumps of coal presented, as in the image below (For the volunteers' sake, I hope they were tested on something more interesting than types of coal).
Then, under the brain scanner, the participants were presented visual cues for the objects and asked to recall the words that corresponded to each item.
During one such study, serendipitously, the researchers stumbled upon a finding not related to memory retrieval but something more significant. The more astonishing discovery was what happened in the brain during periods of rest while the participants awaited instructions.
Researchers noticed that while participants were supposedly in a state of rest, and waiting for instructions on the next set of tasks, a part of their brain was buzzing quite actively.
Default mode network (DMN)
This aspect of brain function—what happens in your brain when you are not actively focused on a task or activity—has since become the subject of significant research. The term for this part of the brain is the Default mode network (DMN). I speculate that a zealous research assistant may have actually called this Default Active Mode Network, but the powers-that-be found the corresponding acronym politically-incorrect and left the word Active out. Of course, it's pure conjecture on my part.
But I'm pretty sure they must have been damned surprise that this wasn't studied before!
Why should we care about the Default Mode Network?
The scientific term for the Default mode network is stimulus-independent-thought. DMN is the thinking that happens when we are not focused on anything particular.
The DMN is the default state your brain goes to every time you finish a task before starting another. And for those of us, that don't bother our brain with too many tasks, this is the default state our brain is in most times. If that alone is not enough reason for us to learn more about it, here are some more.
Our internal monologues arise from the DMN. We pass judgments in our minds on ourselves and the people around us. Within the DMN, we oscillate between the past, present, and future – telling ourselves either "Good job, you did this well" or "What on earth did you think when you said that?".
Mind-wandering, a core part of our existence, happens in the DMN. We put experiences together and form our own storylines, good and bad. And yes, sometimes (most times), our mind wanders a little too much and prevents us from focusing on what we need to do.
A lot of mind-wandering is associated with increased unhappiness. Various psychological disorders such as ADHD, Autism, Alzheimer's are all associated in some way with a malfunctioning DMN.
Where is the Default Mode Network located in the brain?
Really? Do you seriously care to know anatomically where the DMN is located? Unless you are a neuroscientist, in which case, you probably learned this in neuroscience-equivalent of a first-grade class, it shouldn't really matter.
That said, if you want to impress strangers at your next party, you can toss this piece of trivia into your conversation: the DMN is not one but multiple networks of interconnected brain structures primarily in the medial prefrontal cortex, parts of the precuneus, and the anterolateral region of the parietal lobe) the angular gyrus).
Tomato. Tomahto? I thought so.
Let's move on.
How to deal with the Default Mode Network?
Now that we've understood what all the fuss about the DMN is about, like all serious relationships, this one involves a lot of give and take. There are times when we need engagement and other times when we need to disengage with the Default mode network. And then, there is a third state of transcendence that is worth mentioning too.
Engagement with the Default Mode Network
Firstly, let me just say it is important for us to sometimes engage with our DMN because we classify ourselves as homosapiens (any pandas reading this, please make yourself known, so I don't generalize next time).
The DMN, with its focus on self-referential processing, gives us a sense of identity. Without our individuality, who are we? When a debilitating illness such as Alzheimer's wreaks havoc on our DMN, we are left helpless, without a sense of knowing who we are.
For us to engage with the Default mode network, we first need to allow time for the DMN to get activated. Which means we need to withdraw from external stimuli and other sources of cognition.
Constantly subjecting ourselves to a barrage of information means your brain is forced to respond to the stimuli and does not have the time to activate the DMN. This means you consume information all the time but can't integrate the information you consumed with your prior experience. As a result, you are unable to form clear opinions, resulting in deer-in-a-headlight moments.
An inactive DMN will stop you from getting the right perspective on situations.
Disengagement with the Default Mode Network
More critical than engaging, though, is the ability to disengage from the DMN. If we cannot disengage, then there is no way we can focus on the task at hand.
I'm willing to bet that every adult (and unfortunately some kids too) has some version of the 3 a.m. problem—an issue or challenge that's bugging you so much that it's on your mind constantly, and you are unable to shake it off. This is usually a problem or set of issues that keep you up with anxiety all the time, but especially at night. Hence the 3 a.m. reference.
3 a.m. problems aren't usually trivial concerns. They tend to be reasonably deep:
- Have I saved enough for retirement?
- Will my kids have a good life?
- What if I or someone I love gets cancer or other life-threatening illnesses?
When you start to think of a 3 a.m. problem, your Default mode network gets activated and before long is in full swing, running the show in your brain. It becomes almost impossible to focus on any other external stimuli, such as reading a book or watching TV. A brain consumed by the DMN will not quickly turn to stimulus-induced-thought.
Rumination happens here. You feed the worry cycle by saying the same things to yourself over and over again. Our obsessive, compulsive thought patterns are a product of an overactive DMN. For our sanity and those around us, we need to disengage from the DMN.
Severe cases of depression fall into this category. Research has shown that the DMN interacts with the brain's reward system. In the case of severe rumination, the reward system in your brain turns into a foe—it keeps asking you to think self-sabotaging thoughts so it can experience the anguish over and over again. Sadly, the agony is the reward. It becomes impossible to disengage.
Dissolution of the Default Mode Network
In addition to engagement and disengagement of the Default mode network, there is actually a third option – the dissolution of the DMN, the willing it out of existence altogether. Magically. A state where you bypass the DMN entirely.
This is the ultimate quest for spirituality seekers – the dissolution of the ego, getting to the place where we transcend our own identity, a state where we are part of the universal whole. Where individuals don't exist, instead, just one collective consciousness does.
But spiritual seekers aren't the only ones interested in experiencing this state. So are psychedelic users. They look for the same trip as well, but instead of through spiritual seeking, they try to shortcut through cannabis, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and so on. These drug forms promise to take someone into a state that's beyond their known definition of themselves, the world, and its boundaries.
The discipline of Psychedelics is evolving, with much ongoing interest and research on the subject. I'd recommend Michael Pollan's book How to Change your Mind as a starting resource for anyone interested in exploring this further.
Is there a switch to hack the Default Mode Network?
So, it's quite apparent then that we need to be able to move between engaging and disengaging with the Default mode network. Engagement is necessary for us to have a sense of wellbeing and purpose in the world, and disengagement is needed to prevent us from constant self-judgment and rumination.
So, the big question is this—is there a switch that we can turn on and off, as needed?
Surprisingly yes, there are ways to hack your DMN. Well, kind of, sort of.
The catch? It may take some practice to do it the right way.
There are only two non-interventional, credible, and safe options to hack the DMN—meditation, and exercise. Drugs don't cut it because, with psychedelics, you're not in charge of the knob on the dial that will turn up or turn down your DMN. You could get crazy with even a little bit. And that's not hyperbole.
Tinkering with the Default Mode Network
Before we talk about the two safe options to hack the DMN, a disclaimer. Meditation and exercise are treatments for garden-variety DMN malfunctions. Asking a patient with severe depression to simply sit on a meditation cushion or go for a short walk will do squat-all. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. That said, meditation and exercise practices can help prevent a problem from getting desperate in the first place.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Meditation has been proven scientifically to quieten the DMN to allow you to focus on the task at hand. Many new-agey phrases thrown around meditation such as Quieten the mind, Get into flow-state, Be present, Be in the now are all simply ways of saying "Turn off the DMN."
When researchers compared meditators' brains to non-meditators', they confirmed significantly decreased mind-wandering in meditators' brains compared to that of non-meditators.
Experienced meditators brains', showed the emergence of a changed, much calmer, default mode network. The consistent practice of mindfulness meditation over many years is key to attaining this state. One study found that as meditators moved through different states of consciousness, their DMN simply disengaged. Of course, the brains of experienced meditators' are better at changing the DMN than inexperienced meditators' brains.
The second way to tell your DMN to calm-the-heck-down is through aerobic exercise, preferably out in nature. A study of veterans with PTSD (Gulf War Illness) proved that physical activity alone could help quieten the DMN that causes the illness in the first place.
Another study found that DMN function is involved in regulating how much we eat. So, in a rather interesting twist of fate, doing exercise quietens the DMN down, which in turn helps prevent overeating and leads to weight-loss in tested subjects.
Other studies have shown that people reported feeling less self-criticism and rumination after exercising out in nature compared to those that didn't.
If there weren't enough reasons to exercise already, you could add this to the list.
Also, exercise as a tool is a lot more accessible to people (especially fidgety ones). In theory, it does not require the dedicated hours of training and practice as meditation does. Put simply you really have no excuse not to exercise.
In the end
We are said to spend at least 50% of our waking lives in a state of mind-wandering. That's an enormous amount of time to keep talking to ourselves and ignoring what we should be doing instead. Why not try to make that time work to make ourselves happier instead of in a state of rumination? YOLO.
If you can find a way to change your default mode network, I bet you your life will be that much better for it. True self-improvement and personal growth lie in your head.
Last I checked, it's free to take a walk, and it's free to sit on a cushion just watching your breath. These are simple solutions with outsize benefits. So, the question to ask yourself is this:
By any chance, is it your default mode network stopping you from trying exercise or meditation?
Then, that is precisely the reason you should go ahead and start these two practices. Show your DMN who the boss is. Your inner peace depends on it. For that matter, world peace too.