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.

Fighting Your Ego

As I drove home from my little mini vacation to go see my boyfriend, I started listening to a new podcast called Mindlove. I played it basically the entire drive back, so needless to say, I’d definitely recommend it. It got me thinking about all the ways my ego tries to hold me back. The ego is really good at convincing us it’s who we really are. For me I imagine my ego as that little inner voice that is always worrying, always bringing me down, always concerned with how I look or what other people think. When this voice speaks, I take it as gospel.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been taught that we should listen to our gut feelings. The problem with that is I’ve never quite felt able to trust those feelings. I have no idea how to distinguish between intuition and ego. Most of the time I’ve simply waited for “inspiration” to come to me. It rarely ever does. I just use the fact that I haven’t gotten inspiration as a sign that I should just keep waiting. I’ve been waiting for years though. Even when inspiration does strike me, it’s often not enough to get me very far.

I’m beginning to learn that things that are right for you aren’t always going to feel right. You’ve got to trust that your higher self knows what’s best for you and do it anyway. One interesting point I liked from Mindlove was that our natural instincts are always geared towards keeping us in the same place. We resist change even when it’s a good change. So when you’re feeling depressed the things that you feel like doing are going to be things that keep you feeling depressed. I’m sure we all know that feeling. We’re having a bad day so we “treat” ourselves. We eat a bunch of junk food, lie in bed, binge watch our favorite shows. I often think this is doing something kind for myself, when in reality, although it may feel good in the moment, it always leaves me ultimately feeling worse.

This is one reason why it’s so important to create a regular practice of positive things like yoga and meditation. It’s always easy to practice when you’re in the mood for it. But having that routine makes it easier to also lean on your practice when you’re not in the mood. Because that’s truly when we need our yoga the most.

The ego likes to get very loud when we try to do something we don’t feel like doing. It tries to distract us, convince us to stop or do something else. It tells us we’re just wasting time, that it’s all a futile effort. I’m still learning how to stop obeying that nagging little voice in my head. I’ve allowed it to guide my actions for most of my life. It’s the part of me that cringes away from positive affirmations and acts of kindness. Oddly enough, it’s also the part that harshly criticizes me for struggling to embrace these self love practices.

My fear of anything even mildly unpleasant keeps me from connecting with that place of inner peace and happiness. I keep waiting for everything to just fall into place, waiting for the perfect time to change my life. But the truth is that “perfect” time isn’t ever going to come. I’ve got to be brave and start doing the work even though it may feel useless at first.

Your Higher Self and the Soul Star Chakra - Forever Conscious

Shame

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Shame is a powerful emotion. It grips us, stays with us. While other memories fade, shame seems to linger, just as poignant as it felt in the moment, for years afterwards. I can still remember some of the very first moments in my life that made me feel ashamed. The first was in daycare. I must have been only three or four years old. We were going around the group, introducing ourselves maybe, all I can remember is that after our turn, we got to pick a toy from this massive pile in the center of the circle we were seated in. Immediately I fell in love with this florescent yellow/green duck stuffed animal. The rest of the world seemed to fall away as I focused on how I had to have it. I began to feel panicked that another child would choose it before I could. Who wouldn’t choose that magnificent duck?! This panic led me to speak out of turn. In desperation I tried to take my turn early so I could secure the duck, but was gently chastised and told I had to wait. That is my first memory of shame. A shame so sour that even though I did end up getting that duck (still have it today at my mom’s house) the moment was ruined anyway.

I also have another very early memory of shame. It was my first day of kindergarten or one of the first. My family and I were seated around the table having dinner. I was telling everyone how my day went at school. There was a boy I knew because our fathers were friends, and I had always had a crush on him. At one point during dinner I proudly announced that I had told this boy that I loved him. To this day I can feel that sickening silence that followed. My mom, dad, and sister all stopped and stared at me dumbstruck. I immediately recognized that I had done something wrong. I don’t even remember how that incident ended, nor if it was ever brought up again. I just remember that bitter piercing shame.

I’ve read before that shame has a profound effect on us. I don’t need to be shown much evidence to believe that it’s true. We can all feel the power of shame in our own lives. Sometimes I wonder how those early memories of shame have bled out into the rest of my life, how they changed me. Generally shame is a social emotion. It is a cue that what we’ve done is not socially acceptable and that it could put our place in the group/society at risk. This is why it strikes us so intensely. It is a defense against behaviors that could get us ostracized. Although like most remnants of our evolutionary history, in the modern day sometimes it can be a hindrance instead of a help.

I’m actually not sure if anyone else experiences this, but I feel shame about things even when I’m all alone. And not about anything that would make sense to feel shame about. There are moments when shame grips me deep down, in my core. I feel ashamed to exist, to be who I am. For example, sometimes I’ll be having fun dancing and singing in the shower only to be suddenly overcome with shame. It’s hard to explain why. I guess I’m ashamed of feeling good about myself, of what other people would think if they knew how I had just been feeling and acting. It doesn’t really make sense even to me. But because of these feelings up until recently I would hardly ever allow myself to dance, even all alone.

It makes self-love and self-acceptance very tricky for me. Because my shame primarily seems to come from moments of feeling proud or liking myself. It usually follows intense happiness or joy about something I’ve done or am doing. Like this blog for instance. I love writing on here everyday. It makes me happy and I’m not doing it for anyone but me. But there are still moments when I feel ashamed of the things I’ve written. I think to myself: how dare you think anyone cares what you have to say, it’s so embarrassing that you prop up this false image of yourself online. I think similar things about anything I create. I’ll be so happy with it and desperately want to share it with others, but when I do I feel ashamed. I’m ashamed for thinking anyone else would care, for wanting to “show off.” I never fully believe any compliments I get. There is always some small part of me that wonders if they are just being nice.

All of this shame I harbor inside of me is just another example of how I tend to take life too seriously. Shame only works if you care about what people think of you, if you have an image of yourself you are trying to protect. When I imagine the times when I’ve seen someone else do something embarrassing or shameful, I don’t care much. At most I just feel pained because I am empathically sharing their embarrassment. I want to start facing my shame, to get acquainted with it, to know what makes it tick. And eventually to make peace with it. Shame is a product of the ego. I hope to someday let them both go.

Another Day

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My mind is only rarely actually in the present. To be honest, something scares me about surrendering to the moment. My brain is always working overtime, trying to predict, prioritize, and protect. If feels like if I’m not always checking off lists in my head, planning what to do next, or policing my own thoughts that everything will fall apart. I guess it’s just my ego’s desperate endeavor to maintain control.

But no matter how frantically I struggle against myself and this world, the fact is, it is not within my control. I don’t know why that seems so scary to admit. In most of my life, I prefer not to be in control. I’ve never wanted to be in a position of power at work or within my family or friend group. I was the last to take a leadership role in school even in group projects that would have probably turned out much better if I had. Yet when it comes to my own personal life and inner landscape, I am so rigid and domineering.

What am I so afraid of? There is nothing in this present moment for me to fear. Here I am, in my pretty, cozy bedroom, at my cute little desk. There is a slick, frigid February morning outside of my window. My dog is perched at my feet, licking my socks like a precious little weirdo. I am still allowed to work from home. Not only that, my boss texted everyone last night asking us to stay home today because of the weather. How many people can say they work for a place so caring? It truly warms my heart.

Despite all these things, my mind veered off once again. The mere mention of work led me to swirling through panicked predictions of how it could all go wrong. I find myself constantly having to talk myself down, to reassure myself that everything is fine detail by detail. It is actually quite funny when I stop to think about it. If I spend all the peaceful times in my life focused on the fear of losing them someday, what am I even afraid of losing? I’ve not been allowing myself to enjoy all that I have to be grateful for anyway. What sense does it make to agonize over what could change in the future when by doing so I am sacrificing any peace and pleasure I currently have in front of me?

Maybe today, I’ll designate something small to place around my house as a reminder, a reminder that I am happy, a reminder to pause and be grateful. Perhaps the raw crystals I have in every room. Whenever I see one I could take a moment to feel its rough edges in my fingers, to take a few long, deep, mindful breaths, and be present. That might be a nice way to stay grounded. I could also design a small symbol to put up in the corner of my windows or somewhere that will catch my eye. These things will be my anchor. My guide back to the present moment.

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Missing Social Media

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It has been over a year now since I stopped using most of social media. I still have a Tumblr, but I don’t really know anyone on there or interact much. I just post my drawings for my handful of followers and scroll through pretty pictures mostly. I also somewhat consider my time of here “social media” because I do get that dopamine rush from seeing likes and comments on my posts. But I’ve completed cut myself off from Facebook and Instagram. I never had a Twitter or anything else.

It was a lot easier to stop using these sites than I thought it would be. I don’t have tons of friends or family that talk to me on there anyway. It was a wonderful relief to not have to think about what was going on in that virtual social landscape all the time. However, if I’m being honest, I miss having the opportunity for attention. Dying my hair really got me craving some virtual validation. It would have felt nice to post some pictures of my new hair online and get lots of likes. There is something so satisfying about that.

As a woman, I also miss always being able to get attention from guys online. There are certain days when I feel so lonely. It was nice to know I could always find someone new to talk to even if I ultimately decided not to. I do recall thought that most of those impulsive introductions led to nothing but frustration and disappointment. There was also a good bit of anxiety when I decided I wanted to disappear but felt guilty about ghosting.

I know that overall, my life is better without social media. It is unnecessary and mentally and emotionally unhealthy. It’s just a distraction that inflates my ego. I have to keep reminding myself why I left in the first place. I don’t want to go back to fishing for validation from strangers. Even my writing on here has become a little too much about what people will think of it. I want to write these posts every day for me, regardless of what anyone else thinks about what I have to say.

Social Media is a misdirection. It convinces us that the happiness we seek lies elsewhere, in the approval and attention of others. We become addicted to being constantly acknowledged. We become a pseudo celebrity in our own minds. We start to feel empty without the gaze of the masses constantly upon us. But we don’t need anyone else to see our lives for them to matter. We don’t need anyone else to have happiness.

When I am feeling this hollowness, this sense of emptiness within me, there is still that urge to look outside of myself for something to fill that space. But the answer isn’t to indulge that urge. The answer is to sit with this empty feeling, not to run from it. It is a part of me, a part of this experience we call life. And I am the only one who has the power to fill that void. I already have everything that I need.