What I understand about the default mode network in the brain is as follows. When you see a picture, the part of your brain that understands pictures lights up. And when you see words, the part of your brain that understands words lights up. And when you see nothing, the default mode network of your brain lights up.
This is where we daydream and marinate thoughts and ruminate. It’s when you drive somewhere you are used to going and suddenly arrive and wonder how you got there. It’s where we may regret the past which for some can be labelled as part of depression or where we worry about the future which for some can be labelled as part of anxiety.
Sometimes we end up in the default mode network when there are parts of life where we just follow the path. If you are skiing down a frozen hill and several people have gone down before you, it’s hard not to get into the grooves in the snow from the earlier skiers. Whereas when we ski on freshly fallen snow, we must form our own path. Basically, our goal in life is to try to get ourselves out of the default mode network and some things that can do that include meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, or even being mindful while making your meals or pouring a cup of tea. That awareness of the now.
I was listening to Tim Ferriss chat with author Michael Pollan about the default mode network and it was very interesting. Pollan speaks of Robin Carhart Harris’ work in a paper called The Entropic Brain.
Pollan says, “And there, his idea is that the brain is, as we know, a very complex system. And it has an order, an emergent order that is, to some extent, enforced or regulated by the default mode network. And the ego is the felt version of that. And the ego’s job is to kind of patrol the boundaries. It’s the cop on patrol.
And it’s patrolling the boundary between you and the other, things that aren’t you, and you and your unconscious. And the system has this kind of structural order. But in many people, that order gets overly rigid. And that brains function along a spectrum from entropy to rigidity. And on the entropy end, you have serious psychological ailments like schizophrenia. But you also have childhood consciousness, which is very chaotic and very psychedelic, in many ways. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, you get to these illnesses characterized by too much order, essentially.
And that’s depression and obsession and addiction. And these are, essentially, ailments where people get stuck in repetitive loops that these deep grooves of thought and behaviour, which are enforced by an ego that’s become almost punishing, too authoritarian.
And so, these brains are kind of locked. And these other brains are just way loose. And there’s a place you want to be in the middle there. There’s a point of criticality really where you have enough entropy but also enough order. And that we go wrong when we get too far to one end or the other. That’s his theory anyway. It’s speculative, but it has a lot of explanatory power.”
Not speaking about those with diagnosed situations, but for those who are trying to work on mental health in general, it seems we need some chaos and some rigidity in our brains to find that balance. We need to remind our ego, the cop on patrol, that we are allowed to change. We need to be in the now rather than in yesterday or tomorrow. We need to catch ourselves when we are lost in thought and bring ourselves back to where we can take action. Find our flow. Be so engrossed in what we are doing, creating, writing, or uncovering that we are completely in the moment. And that is the moment that will lead us to our best selves.