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.

Happiness, Pleasure, & Self Denial

Pleasure and happiness are not the same. We’ve been taught this nearly our entire lives. This lesson is often handed down with a derogatory attitude toward pleasure in general. Pleasure is a distraction, a trap. True happiness is found only when we master our desire for momentary pleasure in favor of loftier personal pursuits. I still remember learning in my high school psychology class that people with an ability to postpone pleasure, or delay gratification, end up reporting higher levels of happiness. This was a significant moment in my education that still stands out to me. I’ve held fast to that information ever since, hoping that if I could emulate those self-sacrificing people, I too would one day be happier.

It should be said that even though I continued on to get a bachelors in psychology, it didn’t really dawn on me until recently that I should question those early lessons. Psychology, like medicine, is constantly evolving. The things I learned ten years ago can no longer be trusted as confidently. For instance, I also learned in that class that happiness is to a certain extent predetermined by our genes. I’m not even sure if it was ever put in such simple and direct terms. I just recall learning about a study where they recorded people’s levels of happiness before, right after, and then again a year after either a positive or negative life event. It seemed that regardless of whether you won the lottery or lived through the holocaust, a year later your happiness level would basically return to the level it was before the event.

At the time I took this to mean that it was hopeless to try to change your happiness. We were doomed (or blessed) to always revert back to our predestined, baseline levels of happiness. However, now I realize that psychological studies are not so simple. While this study produced interesting results, there is no reason to jump to such harsh conclusions. Our happiness may return to baseline after an extraordinary event, but that doesn’t determine whether or not we can change our happiness baseline.

Despite my original despair about genetic happiness deficits, I still hoped that through hard work and focus, someday I could build a solid foundation of happiness for myself. After all isn’t that the American dream we’ve been sold in this country since infancy? Work hard and you can achieve anything. The unspoken part of that equation somewhat bolstered by the first study I mentioned about delayed gratification, is that the “hard work” portion is not enjoyable. We must struggle and suffer first. We must claw our way to the top. Then and only then can we enjoy the spoils of victory. The road will be rough and arduous, but at the end our “happily ever after” awaits us. Even most major religions teach us to deny ourselves the pleasures of the moment, to deny earthly pleasures. Someday we will be rewarded with true paradise for our martyrdom and devotion.

I’m not trying to say there is no value in this lesson. It is certainly important to be able to resist certain temptations in order to keep ourselves safe and healthy. Seeking short-term pleasure should by no means become our sole focus in life. At the same time, I think our society has perhaps taken this lesson to the opposite extreme. Pleasure has been muddied with ideas of weakness, recklessness, and debauchery. We’ve become so good at delaying gratification that we no longer know how to enjoy the moment.

When was the last time you just allowed your mind to rest of the simple pleasure of the sun warming your bare skin? When was the last time you truly tasted and relished a hot meal? There are so many small moments such as these that we pay no mind. There is an abundance of pleasure to be experienced each and every day. Yet we overlook these innocent pleasures in favor of the thinking mind’s agenda. I don’t have time to focus on this delightful hot shower, the soft steam filling the room, the pinpricks of hot water enveloping me, the sweet smell of flowery soaps, the snug embrace of a towel against clean skin. I’ve got to spend these moments thinking, planning, mentally preparing for the hours, days, even months ahead of me.

These constant mental preparations and ruminations have become so essential to us that we lose the ability to distinguish which are actually helpful and which are merely senseless chatter. We start to feel that this nonstop mental activity is a shield against the uncertainty and unpredictability of life. What would happen to us if we didn’t have this internal dialogue nagging us day and night about our car payment or keeping the house clean or that disagreement we had with a friend last week?

I want to remind you (and myself) that it’s safe to take a break from these intrusive and obsessive thoughts. They are not protecting us from life. They are just keeping us from experiencing it at all. The good news is that most of our suffering is tied to this nonstop cacophony of thoughts. When we step away from them and return to the moment right in front of us, we often realize that we already have everything we need to be happy. I can’t promise that allowing yourself to be present will bring you success, riches, or greater happiness in the future, but I can promise that it will allow you to live the life in front of you with all the pleasures and surprises that come with it.

Here is your invitation to drop your worries, expectations, hopes, and fears for just one day. Give yourself permission to simply experience all that your life has to offer you today. Take notice of the little things that bring you pleasure. Be present in your body and be curious about what pleasure feels like. It’s surprising how much the small stuff can mean to us if we let it.

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