Who Am I Really?

Lying in bed last night, about to drift off to sleep, my mind was flooded with fearful thoughts of my boyfriend coming home in a few months. You may at first assume you misread that first sentence, but no, I was afraid for him to come home. Even though I love and miss him tremendously. Still I was feeling terrified by the way things may change once he’s nearby again. I was afraid of how my routine would change. How much time will he be expecting us to spend together? Will I have to drive up to the city multiple times a week to see him? How often will he be staying with me? All of these unknowns prevent me from my normal mental and emotional preparations for change. I simply don’t know how my life is going to be from day to day in 2022.

Oddly enough, just eight hours later after waking up, having some coffee, and starting my workout, the thought of him not only being close by again, but even living with me, seemed like a dream come true. I couldn’t wait to share as much of my time with him as possible. I fantasized about being the very best version of myself with him by my side to motivate and inspire me. Everything I’ve been aspiring to do/be seemed more likely to happen once he is back home. The same changes that sparked fear last night, were now the very thoughts spurring me onward, giving me hope and energy.

This is not an uncommon occurrence for me. There are many times I find myself overwhelmed with a thought at night, that brings me joy the next morning. The question that always arises is, “Which one of these people is really me?” Who should I believe? The evening me or the morning me? How can one person shift so totally in the span of a day? And shift so predictably and consistently at that? It seems like everything becomes scary and negative in the evening hours, but in the morning the whole world appears brand new and enchanting. It makes me wonder if this is normal. Do other people feel this way? Is this what people mean when they say “morning person”?

In my mind, I’ve come to the conclusion that this drastic inner change is caused by my brain’s neurochemicals dwindling as the night sets in. So I’m inclined to believe that the morning version of me is more true to who I am. The evening me is depleted and out of sorts, unable to view the world accurately. However maybe it’s my morning self that is deluded. Perhaps my refreshed brain is offering me a rose colored perspective that is just as inaccurate. Should I be distrustful of both? Should I deem the middle ground between these two states the most reliable and realistic?

This confusion and uncertainty about which thoughts are “me” and which thoughts are “not me” has always been of great interest to me. Never being able to decide, I gravitate towards the Yogic perspective. None of these thoughts are actually “me.” I am not my thoughts. I am the one who watches these thoughts. I am the one who wonders which of them are me. After all, that watcher within is the one consistent aspect of my mind, the one that is ever-present and unchanging.

Now the question becomes, how can I learn to identify with the watcher, rather than the fluctuating thoughts constantly demanding my attention? How can I keep myself from getting caught in the undertow of emotion that they cause? I suppose that this is the purpose of meditation. To practice being the watcher. To train ourselves not to get swept away. To ground ourselves in the impermanent and illusory nature of existence. To cultivate trust in the fact that it is okay to allow these thoughts to pass through us without letting them force us into action.

Contemplating the different layers within has, at the very least, allowed me to let go of the urgency I feel to respond to the thoughts I have. Lyrics from one of my favorite bands explains it best: “Nothing is ever as pressing as the one who’s pressing would like you to believe.” So when I find myself franticly playing out different scenarios in my head and wondering how on Earth I’ll be able to cope with them, I remind myself of those words. I assure myself that I don’t have to make any decisions or take any action right now. I can acknowledge that sense of urgency without feeling pressured by it. I remind myself that no matter how serious a situation may seem right now, with time my perspective will surely change. It’s okay to just wait, to observe, to sit with those feelings for now. Because I know that tomorrow I will awake to a new world, a new me. And maybe she will be able to handle it. She always has.

Silver Leaf Petal Kids Mirror | Pottery Barn Kids

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.