The Default mode network (DMN) is a set of interacting brain structures first described in 2001 by the Washington University neuroscientist Marcus Raichle. It’s called that because it is most active when the brain is in a resting state. This network links parts of the cerebral cortex (thinking, decision making, higher brain functions) with deeper and evolutionarily older structures of the brain involved in emotion and memory.
It is said to influence, and often inhibit, other parts of the brain, especially those involving emotion and memory; preventing signals from being interrupted or interfering with each other. Neuroimaging studies suggest that the DMN is involved in higher-order “metacognitive” activities such as self-reflection, mental projection, cognitive time travel, and the ability to interpret others’ mental states. (Sheline et al. 2009).
What is especially interesting is the connection between the DMN and the Ego. The DMN is believed to be the home of the part of our brain responsible for judgment, tolerance, reality testing, and a sense of self, what Freud called the “ego”. Author, Journalist and experiential researcher Michael Pollan, in his book How to Change Your Mind (2018), referred to this area of the brain as the “me” network. When a subject is given a list of adjectives to consider relative to their self-identity, this area lights up. It also lights up during daydreams, magical thinking, self-reflection, and when we receive Facebook likes (Pollan , 2018). Subsequently, when there is no task at hand, the Default Mode Network is activated “by default”.
Freud said that the ego keeps anarchic forces of the id in check, and Pollan compares this to the DMN maintaining strict connections on brain function developed over the course of our adult lives. “It appears that when activity in the DMN falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and theusual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away,” Pollan said.
Noticing when we are coming from a place of ego instead of a place of mindful awareness can drastically change our interactions with the world. It is sometimes referred to in Kundalini yoga and other schools of thought as ‘getting out of your own way’ to allow your destiny or Dharmic path to unfold. So eloquently put by British philosopher who popularized Eastern philosophy in the west, Alan Watts, “Ego, the self which he has believed himself to be, is nothing but a pattern of habits” (1966). Mindfulness, Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy are ways for us to create new habits and awareness that involves the world around us instead of only ourselves.
WHY MINDFULLNESS IS SO IMPORTANT
~What is mindfulness?~
“Paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally.”
Current research is finding is when we try to silence the interminable flow of opinions and thoughts in our head when meditating (what some Buddhists refer to as the ‘monkey mind’) is actually the DMN! It’s the DMN flaring up when the brain has nothing better to do. Through mindfulness and meditation, we are able to silence this ‘monkey mind’ chatter and thus switch the DMN offline to bring a greater sense of calm and peace. Being in a mindful state of mind also keeps the frontal lobes on line and helps integrate experiences and feelings rather that dissociate from them (Ogden, 2019).
When we are using Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy coupled with mindfulness, we are working to reroute our neural networks to change patterns, habits and behaviours in the brain. If our DMN kicks in during this process, it inhibits this change from taking place. As expressed by neuroscientist and best selling author Dan Siegel, “Your mind can change your molecules”. This is why staying present and recognizing when we go “offline” is so important. Learning anything new is a process, so be gentle with yourself and come back into the present moment with ease. Know that the more often you do this, the more engrained these new neural networks will become, and the easier it will be to come to clarity.
When we are stressed out, the prefrontal cortex goes offline and our judgments become impaired. “Mindfulness keeps the frontal lobes online and helps integrate (information) rather than dissociate”. (Ogden, 2019). Tapping into the body and noticing your physical sensations and how they come and go are great ways of doing this. Our physical sensations are not permanent; we notice this when we become mindful. We become aware that our current state of being is impermanent. This can bring us hope when the stresses of life feel awful and overwhelming.
Dissociation, which occurs when the DMN is engaged, is also a defense mechanism that can and often has served many of us in our past. However, though many ineffective ways we have learned to cope in life have served us in our past, they are no longer required as we develop and grow through conscious awareness in the here and now. Personal growth has a lot to do with creating new habits and neural pathways in the brain instead of relying on old ways of being that do not serve our highest consciousness.
What is especially interesting in the study of the Default Mode Network is its correlation with depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that people who experience depression and anxiety have a more active DMN than those who don’t (Marwood & Wise, 2017). “The baseline imaging findings are consistent with those found in patients with major depressive disorder and suggest that increased connectivity within the DMN may be important in the pathophysiology of both acute and chronic manifestations of depressive illness” (Posner et al. 2013). One can imagine how ruminating over a specific issue that does not hold our body and mind’s highest good could lead to a downward depressive spiral. Mindfulness and coming into the present moment can actually help stop the rumination of upsetting circumstances and life events. Mindfulness literally makes us happier! What a wonderful tool to keep close.
I wish you grace in your journey to mindful awareness and keeping your Default Mode Network from clouding your ability to stay present and happy.
Please join me May 11th, 2019 from 1-5 at The Sanctuary Space, where we will explore this subject through Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy Techniques.
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Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hachette books: New York
Marwood, L., Wise, T. (2017). Instability of default mode network connectivity in major depression: a two-sample confirmation study. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 https://www.nature.com/articles/tp201740
Ogden, P. (2019). Treating Trauma Master Series. Retrieved on April 24, 2019 from https://www.nicabm.com/program/treating-trauma-master-4/?del=homepagepopular
Perkins AM, Arnone D, Smallwood J, Mobbs D. (2015). Thinking too much: self-generated thought as the engine of neuroticism. Trends Cogn Sci2015; 19: 492–498.
Pollan, M. | (2018), How to Change Your Mind. Penguin Press: New York.
Posner J, Hellerstein DJ, Gat I, Mechling A, Klahr K, Wang, Z, McGrath PJ, Stewart JW, Peterson BS. Antidepressants normalize the default mode network in patients with dysthymia [published online February 6, 2013]. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.455.
Watts, A. (1966). The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Random House Inc: New York
Yvette I. Shelinea, Deanna M. Barcha, Joseph L. Pricee, Melissa M. Rundleb, S. Neil Vaishnavib,Abraham Z. Snyder, Mark A. Mintuna, Suzhi Wanga, Rebecca S. Coalsonb, and Marcus E. Raichle (2019). The default mode network and self-referential processes in depression. Retrieved on May 3, 2019 from https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/106/6/1942.full.pdf, PNASFebruary 10, 2009vol. 106no. 61947