Over the last several years, much discussion and research have surfaced about the DMN brain and how it impacts the human mind. Many people call it the state of being on “auto-pilot.” You might be wondering what it all means, how it works, and if it makes any difference. In this article, we will lean into the depth of details on the Default Mode Network and its intriguing role in the brain.
The default mode network is a set of structures in the brain’s midline that holds thoughts and memories. Its activity reduces when a person is involved in attention-demanding external tasks like watching movies and significantly increases when passive, like resting, daydreaming, and thinking.
The default mode network brain is essential in neuroscientific studies and research. It impacts a person’s daily life and can be involved in some brain-associated behaviors and conditions. It is a network in the brain that can negatively and positively impact the quality of your life, depending on whether you use it to your advantage or let it affect you.
What Is The Default Mode Network?
The default mode network is a selection of brain interacting regions that increase activity when a person is in passive mode, resting, or unfocused on a task. It decreases in activity when a person is busy with attention-demanding tasks which involve the external world.
This default mode network in the brain is essential in understanding the consciousness of the mind and is involved in regulating emotion and memory. It is the conductor of the neural symphony and allows numerous signals to pass through it.
The default mode network is responsible for several aspects, such as:
Wandering And Worrying
The DMN brain is responsible for where the mind goes when wandering or worrying. It plays a role in thinking, dreaming, and worrying. If you find yourself spaced out, wandering about the food you will eat, or thinking about a movie you saw last night, your default mode network is active.
When you worry about a loved one who is ill, how you will pay your monthly bills, or even if you are concerned about your relationship, your DMN is activated. You will find yourself thinking about anything in your life or concerning others.
Time Travel Thinking
The default mode network is involved in mental time travel which is the ability to think about your past or future. Time travel thinking is essential in having a sense of identity. Your past is a part of you, and the future is where you see yourself and the reason for motivation in life. Without a sense of time, you lack a complete identity.
If you find yourself reminiscing past experiences, whether they are good or bad, or planning future events, your DMN will be activated, and you will be less or not at all focused on external tasks.
Theory Of The Mind
The DMN is involved in the theory of the mind, which is the ability to ascribe mental states such as emotions, action predictions, desires, intentions, etc., to others and ourselves. This is critical to moral and ethical reasoning because it helps with perspectives in decision-making and judgments of character.
The theory of mind has an impact on how you perceive others and how you interact in social settings. It also plays a role in allowing you to have empathy and intuition.
The experiential self is the ability to connect events and experiences that have happened to you over any given period with the story of who you are. It could be negative or positive. An example is a person who struggles with maintaining relationships might conclude that they are not worthy of love, whereas that is not necessarily true.
The default mode network allows the brain to work with the emotional state in the present while remembering past experiences. The process results in conclusions about who you are and what you might need or want. It can even affect what you do.
The default mode network allows a signal of self-reflection to pass through. This is where you find yourself thinking about your life, day, traumas, behaviors, conversations, actions, etc. Anything that allows you to reflect on yourself and who you are happens during activated DMN.
Self-reflection often leads to self-criticism - a significant part of an active default mode network. It is where people retreat to their thoughts and question themselves, make theories and conclusions about themselves and why they do or did certain things.
The default mode network is also involved in rumination. Rumination is when you have repetitive thoughts about something. It typically happens with problem-based situations. The mind will obsessively think and overthink these negative ideas.
Rumination from the DMN often results in mental health disorders (discussed later in the article), like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and can even lead to panic attacks. It can interfere with the regular mental functioning of your mind.
The Regions Of The Default Mode Network Brain
The default mode network consists of three main regions within the brain. The three sections connect through large tracts of axons. The axons allow the regions to correlate during activated DMN. Each area is associated with and responsible for certain aspects of the inner world of the thinking mind. These regions are:
- The prefrontal cortex – Responsible for the theory of mind
- The medial temporal lobe – is associated with memory
- The posterior cingulate cortex – Integrates various internal thoughts
How Was The Default Mode Network Discovered?
While this brain network was recognized decades ago, Michael Raichle et al. coined the term “default mode network” after discovering it through a data subtraction procedure. They subtracted the experimental image from the fMRI to see which parts of the brain were deactivated during external stimuli.
The understanding of this made a breakthrough in neuroscience because it allowed researchers to realize that the brain (DMN regions) is constantly active, even during resting phases. Only when a person begins an attention-demanding task related to the outside world that the default mode network slows down in activity.
The Default Mode Network In Active State
During an active state of the default mode network, the brain regions will be running on increased activity. The brain always works as long as you are thinking, wandering, or reminiscing.
When you are resting, your brain is still working; hence you will think about past events and future scenarios and worry about things. You might think about a person and find yourself feeling sympathy toward them or missing someone you wish you could see again.
You could be figuring out how to achieve your goals and dreams and deciding the steps you will take to get there. When the DMN is active, you often catch yourself in deep thought or feeling spaced –out.
The default mode network constantly works and wants to take you back there all the time. That is why you will notice when you are engrossed in an external task; for example, when cooking, your mind will begin to wander, and before you know it, your onions have burnt. That is because your brain always wants to retreat to “auto-pilot.”
What Is An Auto-Pilot Brain Function?
Being on autopilot is a simpler term for the default mode network brain. In addition, being on autopilot also refers to action and not exclusively the thinking function of the brain. The auto-pilot function comes from having a highly active default mode network. That means your mind constantly wanders, and your brain always wants to take you back to default mode.
In the book “How to do the work,” written by Dr. Nicole LePera, more famously known as The Holistic Psychologist, she interestingly explains auto-pilot mode as the act of being on a spaceship. It happens when you space out and go through daily life quite literally by just going through the motions. Your mind is always active in DMN, so your thoughts are overpowering.
When that happens, you jump onto this “spaceship” and can’t stay focused for a long time, even on external focus-based tasks, which take your brain out of the default mode network. You will find yourself quickly mind-wandering and unable to concentrate.
Is The Default Mode Network Important?
The default mode network is vital for the proper functioning of the brain. While there are some adverse effects of overuse of the network, a person cannot function in life without going to default mode occasionally. Imagine going day after day only doing attention-demanding tasks for the external world with no space to stop and wander or process information; people would be like robots.
The default mode network is essential for memories. This comes from the involvement in time travel thinking. Imagine if you didn’t have memories or couldn’t access any; you would lose your sense of identity. Whether memories are good or bad and whether it’s a beautiful childhood experience or what you ate for dinner the previous night, it is necessary to remind you who you are.
The default mode network is equally essential for wandering or daydreaming. If your mind cannot wander, you cannot take rest from daily tasks – again, going to robot mode. If you cannot take a few minutes of the day to daydream, access your imagination, or fantasize about your future, you will not know what your desires and goals are.
How To Reduce Default Mode Network Activity?
Undoubtedly, the default mode network is vital for the proper functioning of the brain. But staying in that mode for too long or allowing it to distract you from focusing on the present can be detrimental to your mental health (discussed in the next point).
Here are various ways you can reduce the activity in your default mode network brain:
- Yoga and meditation help you focus on your breathing and bring yourself into your body to be present exactly where you are. Over time it has a significant impact on helping you stay calm and reduce worries.
- Grounding and earthing help you connect with the earth and its elements and find solace. It helps to bring your attention to the present moment.
- Spirituality and prayer guide you to connect with a higher power and be reminded that you cannot control everything, allowing you to release your worries and find gratitude in the present.
- Journaling helps you get your thoughts out onto paper. It enables you to navigate your feelings instead of rethinking information. That way, you don’t get stuck in your head and will be less likely to drift into default mode.
- Vision boards are like journaling but pictures. Creating a visual of your thoughts provides clarity, and physically seeing them before you help you dwell on them less in your mind.
- Professional therapy allows you to speak your truth without judgment and navigate your emotions. It helps you understand your feelings and traumas and work through them.
- Reading is a focused-distraction task. It taps into your thinking mind without putting you in default mode. Over time, it helps you focus on current activities without wandering.
- Reducing Screen Time can help improve mental focus. Excess screen time, especially on social media, has trained the mind to jump between things in seconds. Reducing usage can help strengthen focus.
The Default Mode Network Brain And Mental Health Disorders
The DMN has significant involvement in mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. These disorders surface or result from conscious and subconscious memories of traumatic events and fears over the years, from birth. The mind and body store these memories, and without working to heal them through therapy or medical assistance, they resurface and affect your health and quality of life.
All memories and thoughts that bring up fears, worries, past negative experiences, etc., stem from the three regions in the brain that were mentioned earlier in the article. Those regions make up the default mode network. When the DMN activity is increased and specifically prolonged, it can cause and even worsen symptoms of mental health disorders and possibly even cause panic attacks.
It is important to practice mindfulness and focus-based distractions while also seeking professional help if you struggle with mental health issues. These practices can help you work through your challenges and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The Default Mode Network Brain And Associated Illnesses
Several neurological conditions have been associated with the default mode network since its discovery. Most disorders connected to thinking abilities, memories, and attention deficits have been said to be related to dysfunction in the DMN. Here are some of those conditions:
- Anxiety and depression
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- Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)
These are the most common conditions, though not exhaustive or exclusive, that are currently associated and researched with dysfunction in the DMN. They each have unique elements caused by some form of thinking brain activity.
Either it happens by overthinking or the inability to lower the DMN activity and focus on the present or attention-demanding external tasks. It also happens because memories are too deeply accessed, over excessed, or there is an inability to access them. From here, you can understand that it is all related to the brain's regions that make up the DMN.
The regions that make up the set of structures in the brain that form the default mode network are a vital part of the proper functioning of the brain. It is the network that is always working and is connected to the thinking mind and memories. This network gets distracted when you focus on outside world tasks that require focus and attention.