It probably comes as no surprise to learn that even when you think you’re just spacing out, your brain is awake with activity. When you aren’t focused on anything in particular, the areas of your brain responsible for processing emotions, recalling memories, and thinking about the future are working at full capacity. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we started to understand how the resting brain processes information.
In a 2001 study, Washington University professor Marcus Raichle and his colleagues classified the “resting” state of a brain as the default mode of brain function, and the areas of the brain that control it the Default Mode Network, or DMN. The DMN consists of four parts: the medial temporal lobe, responsible for long-term memory; the medial prefrontal cortex, which manages thoughts and actions relating to internal goals; and the posterior cingulate cortex, which has been linked to autobiographical memory. This network of brain regions is essential to our ability to reflect on ourselves, our motivations, and our past, leading some researchers to believe that it may be highly influential in the development of our sense of self.
This range of daydreams has lead some to believe that reining in a wandering mind is key to living a balanced mental life.
This makes sense. When we are left with time to daydream, our internal monologue starts. People who daydream more tend to have a more active DMN, which has been linked to both feelings of depression and creativity. Researchers have even identified three different types of daydreams that both affect and are affected by a person’s emotional state when their DMN is active: positive constructive daydreaming with playful, wishful thoughts; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming characterized by guilty, pained thoughts; and poor attention control, characterized by an inability to focus on internal or external thoughts.
This range of daydreams has led some to believe that reining in a wandering mind is key to living a balanced mental life. Buddhism has promoted quieting ones internal monologue through meditation for thousands of years. In his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Buddhist scholar Chögyam Trungpa wrote that meditation is “necessary generally because our thinking pattern, our conceptualized way of conducting our lives in the world, is either too manipulative, imposing itself upon the world, or else runs completely wild and uncontrolled.” This may be true: researchers have found links between depressive rumination and the DMN, as well as evidence that meditation can reduce default mode activity.
What’s most important though is to give yourself time and space to reflect on where you mind takes itself when you let it wander.
Ultimately, the nature of one’s default mode is highly dependant on their mental and emotional states, which in turn play significant roles in where the mind wanders when they are alone with their thoughts. If someone is already depressed, an active DMN may cause them to ruminate on that depression, leading to further anxiety. The issue isn’t with the DMN itself, but getting stuck in a particular default mode and being unable to break out of it.
So how can you use your DMN to your advantage? Meditation is, of course, one way to gain control over your brain’s default mode and to develop mindfulness. In fact, researchers have found that extended meditation practices can rewire the DMN, potentially helping someone who feels chronically depressed shift their default mode entirely. What’s most important though is to give yourself time and space to reflect on where your mind takes itself when you let it wander. Luckily, we have the perfect places to do that.