Default Mode Network

NeuroScience

If you haven’t heard the term default mode network (DMN) before, you’re not alone. Yesterday was the first time I did. Although I still am new to this concept, I wanted to talk about it today. I just wanted to get that disclaimer out first thing. I’m certainly not an expert on this. I hardly know anything about it. What I do know, however, is already enough to enthrall me and make me eager to learn more. So don’t take my words here as gospel. Go read about it for yourself.

I first heard about this term while continuing to read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. If you’ve read my other posts referencing this book, you already know where this is going. That’s right, psychedelics. Scientists have discovered a very fascinating phenomenon in the brains of people tripping on LSD or psilocybin. These psychedelic substances inhibit or turn off the default mode network in our brain.

So what is the default mode network? From what I’ve gathered, the default mode network includes many different parts of the brain that are active when we are “in our own heads” so to speak. These are the pathways we are using when we are ruminating, daydreaming, planning, remembering the past, contemplating the future, etc. Basically this is the network that is active when we are lost in thought, rather than focusing our attention on something in the outside world. In the book, it also specifies that this DMN kicks on when we are thinking about ourselves.

This aspect of self-awareness encompassed in the DMN is one of the reasons why we are able to experience “ego death” while using psychedelics, which switch off this network. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that ego death and transcendent experiences are both known to occur while tripping. The DMN, while useful, is also being linked to depression and other mental illnesses. People that spend a lot of time in the DMN are often less happy overall than people that spend less time in this brain state.

I find this very fascinating because it seems to reflect a lot of the advice you hear given to people that are unhappy. “Try to focus on someone else for awhile.” “Rather than ruminating, use that energy to help someone you love.” “Become a more active part of the community.” All of these shifts in focus are actually helpful, but now it seems science is getting a better idea exactly why that’s the case. And I don’t know about you, but I find it more easy to follow through on advice if I know the facts back it up.

Another thing I found interesting is the idea that social media tends to strengthen the DMN. When we are scrolling through Instagram or checking how many likes we got on our last Facebook post, our brains are in the default mode network. Apart from all the other reasons there are to disengage from social media, this one is quite compelling. No wonder I feel happier and less anxious now that I don’t use those apps!

If you’re looking for a way to experience the bliss of brain states outside of the DMN, but don’t want to take a drug to do so, you can try meditation instead. Surprisingly fMRI scans of experienced meditators and those of brains on psychedelics are remarkably similar. Training our minds through meditation can give us the power to focus. That focused attention in itself is another way to get ourselves out of the DMN. I believe that is why the “flow” state we experience when we loose track of time while working on a task that completely absorbs our attention is so pleasant. It’s a great feeling to “lose ourselves” in our work.

I have yet to see any research related to this, but I’m interested to know how the DMN functions in adolescence. I hypothesize that it may play a role in the unhappiness a lot of us experienced during this time in our lives. It also appears to be a time in life when we tend to be the most selfish. We’re learning who we are and what we want, finding our own identities. While this is an important and necessary part of growing up, it also requires a lot of self-centered thinking, which as we now know, can lead to a greater sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As we get older and start to think more about others, the emotional turmoil of youth also seems to subside somewhat.

As this term was only coined in 2001, there is still a lot that science doesn’t understand about this brain state. A lot more research needs to be done. I’m excited to see what else neuroscience will discover about our brains and how exactly they work in the future. But as I said earlier, I am not at all a voice of authority on this subject. I just couldn’t resist sharing the concept and the things I’ve learned that have got me so excited about it. I highly recommend doing your own research and reading more about the default mode network for yourself. Feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented any of the things I’ve shared about this network. Also Let me know in the comments if you find out anything interesting that I didn’t mention.

Exploring the Mind

Still immersed in How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan, I have been unable to prevent the psychedelic perspective from penetrating my every thought. I am desperate to find some free time in which I can start experimenting with my own spiritually centered trips. One of the things I find most interesting about psychedelics is the revelations people often experience while taking them. It’s not as if these insights are new. They are usually a reflection of things that have become platitudes: We are all one, love conquers all, we have the ability to choose our own reality, make our own happiness, etc. This is one of the reasons I find it so difficult to express the psychedelic experience to those who haven’t taken these drugs for themselves. It’s almost too hard to put into words and make sense of in my own head, let alone translate it to others. It’s similar to the way we can pass along knowledge, but not wisdom. There is something ineffable about the experience that solidifies the truth of the realizations that come with it.

Pollan’s book talks a lot about the seemingly limitless potential of these drugs to treat mental illness, comfort the dying, and even improve the quality of life for average, healthy people. What it hasn’t seemed to touch on yet though is the implications these psychedelic experiences have in regard to our minds in general. Sure we are introducing a foreign substance to our brains, but the pathways it activates are already inside of us, just waiting to be utilized. People have already found ways to access these mental pathways through breathwork alone, without the use of any substances. What does all this mean when it comes to our limited perspectives and perception of ourselves, others, and the world around us?

As a child, unburdened by biases or expectations, the world seems like quite a fantastical place. We’re present, we’re in the moment, we’re open to new experiences and ways of thinking. Understandably, that changes as we age. The more time we spend looking at the world through a certain lens, the more it begins to feel like that’s the only lens there is. We forget that we haven’t always thought or felt the way we currently do, and that others don’t think, feel, or react in the same ways that we do. Wouldn’t it be amazing to take a peak into the mind of someone else for just a few moments? Or better yet, to truly know the full capabilities of our own brains?

It’s frustrating and fascinating to realize that no one will ever truly know what it feels like to be anyone else. We take for granted that as human beings we are pretty much the same, but how alike are we really? So much of our experience of life is private and uniquely personal. The way our minds work are too complex for us to fully grasp, despite how far science has come. One of the issues psychedelic researchers have is how to quantify and categorize such personal, subjective experiences into usable data. Science has been relegated to the very limited realm of objective facts and observable behaviors/phenomenon. It seems we haven’t quite figured out a way to explore and understand subjective experiences, despite what a huge impact these things have in the world.

I suppose subjective subjects are better left to philosophers than scientists. However, one thing that is mentioned in Pollan’s book is the suggestible nature of a psychedelic experience. Whatever you are primed to experience is most likely what you will experience during your trip. Just like in a lot of other ways, in this way psychedelics seem like a hyper-intense reflection of reality in general. Our perceptions of everyday life are also highly suggestible, especially in childhood when the rigid patterns in our minds that psychedelics break down, haven’t yet been formed. If you wake up each morning and tell yourself you’re going to have a bad day full of tedious, tiresome activities, you probably will. On the other hand, if you can make yourself believe you’re going to have an amazing day filled with smiles and laughter and new adventures, you probably will! The external circumstances can be exactly the same.

It is impossible to imagine just how many different ways of thinking exist in the world. I believe we are each capable of experiencing all of these perspectives. More than any physical barrier, what holds us back most in life are our own limiting beliefs. Changing them can seem impossible at times. We don’t usually choose to believe what we believe. It’s an amalgamation of so many different factors that manifest as a belief system. Challenging those deep-seated ideas is no small task, nor is there a clear place to start. Part of the issue comes from realizing how much these beliefs limit our ability to even imagine alternative ways of thinking.

Looking at it that way really underscores the importance of finding time for focused creativity as an adult. Creativity isn’t about what you produce. It’s about expanding the limits of our own minds so that we are better able to come up with creative solutions to our problems and allow ourselves access to more options in our inner lives. Creativity is a muscle that is not exercised nearly enough. It is completely undervalued in our schools, offices, and communities. Studies have shown that adults are drastically less creative than children. Longitudinal studies that follow the same participants over decades reveal that despite being very creative at one point, they lose the vast majority of that creativity as they grow older.

If you find yourself feeling stuck, like the world has lost it’s luster, you’re not alone. The panoramic view of existence we all enjoy in childhood becomes narrower each year. For me, it’s extremely comforting and reassuring to remind myself that there is so much I don’t know. There is so much I am incapable of even imagining. So when I begin to apathetically ask myself, “Is this all there is?” I know the answer is a resounding, “No.” There is so much more waiting to be discovered.

Some St. Louisans Find Therapy, Meaning In Psychedelics As Researchers  Study Benefits | St. Louis Public Radio

Memory

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Memory has always been something that fascinates me, like dreams. Another mysterious inner activity of the mind that we struggle to fully understand. Both my memory and my dreams are private worlds that only I may enter. It’s an interesting thought. Reality can be confirmed by those around us experiencing the same things. How are we to know if our solitary memories and dreams are “real?” Perhaps in the end it doesn’t matter. They are real to us. Therefore they influence the way we see and interact with the world.

Lately I’ve been asking people about their earliest memories. I’ve done this a few times in the past as well. Even though I always seem to get similar responses, I never cease to be shocked and frustrated. I don’t think anyone I’ve ever asked has told me about a memory from before they were in school. Even kindergarten memories seem to be rare for people. This is just so hard for me to believe. Do most people really not have any memories from early childhood, before school? Before 5 years of age? That just can’t be true. I can’t imagine going through life like that.

The excuse is usually, “Well, I have a really poor memory.” But so do I! My friends will tell me stories from our adventures together in college and I’ll have only the foggiest recollection of the whole scenario. There are handfuls of people I’ve met and even slept with that I don’t remember at all. Sometimes it feels like my memory is a jar of sand with a crack near the top. All of my early memories seem to be safe at the bottom of that jar, but memories from recent years slip through the crack and are lost forever. I used to have a nearly photographic memory. However years of drug and alcohol use have all but destroyed it. But I just thought a deteriorating memory would encompass every memory, not just more recent ones. Perhaps my brain is able to hold onto the memories it keeps, but is just hit or miss when it comes to forming new memories.

Either way, the fact remains that even will this poor memory of mine, I am able to remember countless things from a very young age. I have tons of memories from before I went to school. I have memories of my grandmother watching my sister and I and the fun we would all have together while my mother was at work. I can remember going to preschool when I was 3 and 4. I remember the friends I made. Even snippets of conversations, the toys we would play with, the ones we weren’t allowed to and how frustrated I was by that. (There were finger paints and giant blocks that we were forbidden from using to my confusion and dismay.) I can remember a lot about kindergarten too, not just one or two memories.

It is honestly scary to me that no one else has these kinds of memories. It makes me afraid that I will someday lose them. It makes me want to start writing it all down for myself. It also makes me doubt myself. Do I remember these things? Maybe these are false memories. Maybe none of those things really happened or happened differently than I remember. Maybe I am just remembering the times throughout my life when I have recounted these memories to others.

What I used to consider my earliest memory is now suspect. I was only 1 or 2 years old. I was in my crib, throwing a tantrum, throwing binkies out onto the floor. I wanted my original binkie. Like the first one I ever had, if that gives you an idea of just HOW young I was. But it had gotten old and used up so my mother threw it away. (This I only discovered from telling this memory to my mom when I was younger.) Even at the time she was shocked I could remember that. And at the time I truly did. But now it feels more like I am remembering the story, not the actual experience. There are some of my very very early memories that feel this way now, but with others there is still that feeling of being transported back in time in my own head, that bodily sensation of being there again.

Part of me doesn’t fully believe people when they tell me their first memory is from when they were 9 years old or something. It just seems absurd to me. I question if it’s just that they don’t want to tell me their earliest memories. Perhaps that’s too personal for me to be asking. Or maybe they could think of earlier ones if they really concentrated and put more effort into it. I just cannot accept that I am rare in remembering things from when I was 3 or 4. Or that I could possibly be mistaken in thinking I can. That’s what actually unnerves me the most. Because those memories mean a lot to me.

I want to hold onto as many memories as I can from those early years. Those years of simple bliss, of being so lovingly cared for, marveling at the whole world, learning, exploring, loving everyone and everything with the innocence of a child. Maybe I will write as much as I can remember down and see if I can at least confirm it with my mom, grandma, or sister. That might give me some peace of mind on the matter. For now, I am going to keep asking people in the hopes that I can find more people that share these memories of early life. Please help me out by leaving a comment letting me know when your earliest memory is from. And if you’re comfortable doing so, let me know what the memory is about as well. I would love to hear from more people.

A Profound Dream

I have always been deeply interested in dreams. I have found them fascinating since I was a young child. They are so mysterious. I am endlessly amazed at the things my unconscious brain is able to create for me each night while I sleep.

Recently I have gotten better at remembering them as well. I’ve been writing them down in my bullet journal once I wake up. The night before last I had a disturbing visceral dream that one of my toes just fell off. It was grotesque. It hurt, but not as bad as having a toe really fall off would have. There was hardly any blood and the stump left on my foot looked as if it had already been healing for a few months. I tried to tape the tip back on in the hopes it would reattach, but I knew somehow it wouldn’t work and that the awful toe tip I had in my hand was already dead.

Now, compare that monstrous dream to the one I had last night. I don’t remember all of the dream, just the end. I was having a conversation with someone. They were basically feeling pity for me and expressing how sad it was that I hadn’t found a romantic partner and may never find one. I was desperately trying to help them understand that they shouldn’t feel bad for me. I remember the phrasing perfectly as I replied to them, “Even if I never find someone that loves me in that way, I won’t be sad. I am so grateful for all of the other kinds of love that I’ve been lucky enough to have in this life.”

I could feel that grateful feeling even after I awoke. I often find myself caring the emotional state of my dreams over into the waking world with me. But I’ve never really had a dream like that before. It was simply beautiful. Usually my dreams are far more bizarre and unrealistic, as you can see from the other one I mentioned.

What a kind thing my unconscious mind has done for me as I rested. I hope that those words and that feeling of peaceful gratitude remain with me for a long time.

Positivity with Anxiety

I have always been a very anxious person. Recently, however, I have come to notice how that has affected my ability to be positive throughout my life. I’ve noticed myself shying away from not only experiences that are intimidating, but exciting experiences as well. It seems strange, but it almost seems as though a positive experience would inevitably make me anxious at some point. I find my mind racing and reviewing obsessively the good memories as well as the bad. At times it feels easier to back away from everything and just be alone. Because of this it has been hard for me to allow myself to fully be a positive, hopeful, loving, and open person. Part of me has always been waiting for disaster to strike. And this negative energy has the potential to spoil my momentum in every endeavor.

I wanted to share something with you all that may benefit someone in my situation. Something I read somewhere once (I honestly cannot remember for the life of me where) has been very helpful to me in dealing with this dilemma. The essence of the message that really stood out to me from that article was that the brain and body have a very similar interpretation of anxiety and excitement. In other words the brain and body have a similar physical reaction towards a stimuli producing either one. I don’t know why, but this knowledge has helped me reframe my internal dialogue.

In the past, I would often become very distraught at the sense of anxiety that exciting and welcomed experience seemed to produce in me. I would begin questioning why it was I was feeling that way. My anxiety would build as my mind began to race with thoughts of how strange and broken I must be. I felt guilty that I wasn’t enjoying myself, that I wasn’t grateful. I worried that I would never be able to fully enjoy anything. However, after realizing why it was possible that my brain may have trouble distinguishing between anxiety and excitement, I no longer fell into that cycle of toxic thoughts. Now instead of spiraling into my feelings of anxiety I tell myself a different story. I am not anxious. I am excited!

This change in the narrative allows me to lean into what I’m feeling instead of frantically trying to push those feelings away. Thinking to myself, “I am excited,” usually even makes a smile spread across my face. I can almost feel the bubble of tension break and send shivering tingles down my spine. I am excited! I’m reminded to not be so serious and let the child in me be happy for a moment. It’s almost as if what I’m feeling is the energy or prana being created inside me that needs to be let out. And I let it out by just allowing. Allowing myself to really experience what I am feeling. Instead of bottling it up and trying to press it down inside me.

I hope that you can use this trick yourself and that you find as much relieve in this shift in perspective as I have. I am going to use it to allow myself to be more positive. I no longer have to fear this strange sense of urgency that arises within me when things are going well. I was mistaken to think this was a signal of danger and dread. My body and mind had gotten so use to that pattern. It was just a little confused. Now I remember though. That feeling is excitement. It’s the urge to express that energy. I hope through continuing to learn and grow, we’ll all stop stifling our energy and share it openly and joyfully with the world.

I’m excited! ♥