Our minds are hardwired to wander, and that’s not a bad thing
Published on February 05, 2021
Please stop reading.
Instead, for the next few minutes, sit back in your chair and relax. Don’t look at your phone, check email, or plan your grocery shopping. Do precisely nothing.
If you indulged in the experiment, consider what happened. Did your mind wander? Did you relive past memories? Maybe your most recent performance review or an awkward conversation? Or perhaps your mind drifted forward to future plans? The yard work or home improvement you’ve had planned for months?
Whatever the specifics, your mind almost certainly meandered somewhere. That’s because when we’re at rest, our minds are rarely resting. Indeed, if you were to lie in a brain scanner and rest and repeat the experiment, the display would erupt into a multi-colored Jackson Pollock of brain activity.
The phenomenon is caused by the default mode network (DMN)—named so by neurologist Marcus Raichle because of how pervasive it is. The DMN kicks into gear when you are without a specific goal-oriented mental task—say, solving a complex mathematical problem. Without a clear focus, blood rushes to your medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and angular gyrus. The trio of brain regions leads your mind away to fantasize about future events, ruminate on the past, or assess your environment for threats.
We slip into this state commonly and easily. Indeed, studies show when someone is interrupted while working on a complex math problem, the trio of regions that form the DMN light up again in as little as two seconds. Given how often most of us are interrupted by notifications while trying to work, it’s easy to see how problematic the DMN’s incessant beckon can be. A ding, ring, or ping snaps our focus and our DMNs light up.
Wandering minds are not focused minds. Because the DMN can distract us from tasks, many are quick to label it as an enemy of productivity. But dig a little deeper, and there’s more to the story. Understanding the default mode network can help you learn to use your mind better.
A dragon to be tamed?
In his book Mindfulness for Beginners, Jon Kabat-Zinn warned his readers to be wary of the “self-centered, self-preoccupied yarns” we tell ourselves when our minds wander. Left to their own devices, the DMN will conjure up past experiences and future projections to “bolster whatever contention we care to feature at any moment.”
When the DMN overwhelms our understanding of the world, “it can very much limit our understanding of ourselves and what might be possible,” Kabat-Zinn argued. To achieve a balanced mental life, we must learn to rein in our DMN wherever possible.
Chögyam Trungpa, the controversial meditation master who helped import Buddhism to the U.S., was more forceful, describing what we now call the DMN as a dragon to be tamed—if not slain.
Many contemporary psychologists echo these warnings. Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and Chief Clinical Officer of an addiction treatment center, says the DMN can lock us in a “spiral of negative emotions.”
“It can distract you with other thoughts during a time when you need to be focused on a particular task,” he tells Dropbox. “You might feel overwhelmed by different thoughts which can create a sense of helplessness, affecting your self-efficacy and productivity.”
Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University studied the correlation between focus and happiness. Based on a quarter of a million queries across a sample of 5,000 people, they concluded that people tended to be more unhappy when they let their DMN run loose.
But researchers are careful not to present a one-sided account of the network. For example, while Wind concedes that the state can distract us, he rejects the idea that it’s an enemy of productivity, work, or happiness. The brain state, he says, is integral to how we see and understand the world.
Understanding the default mode network can help you learn to use your mind better.
From an evolutionary perspective, the DMN aids our survival. It allows us to reflect on past memories and learn from our pasts. So too does it empower us to think forward and plan for our futures. Thanks to structures like the DMN, we’re no longer focused solely on our imminent survival: the tasty berries hanging from the bush, the dangerous rustle in the leaves behind them, the freezing plops of rain falling on the ground.
“Our daily memories play a role in helping us make a model of the world in which we live, and predict the future,” said Marcus Raichle during an interview with University of Oslo neuroscientist Svend Davanger. “If we get up from a chair and walk across the room, the brain will make predictions about motor actions, such as which foot goes in front of the other one. This is important for survival; it isn’t just fun, it’s important.”
But the role of the DMN in cognition is more complicated than simple past reflection and future planning. It’s what neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett calls a “core system.” These brain structures interact with a constellation of mental systems to “construct diverse and tasty end-products such as emotions and thoughts.” The DMN in particular is involved in “remembering the past, imagining the future, empathy, morality, emotion, and more.”
In an interview with Quartz, neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College of London, suggested the DMN is more of a “cognitive transit hub” than a disruptive dragon. It integrates, assimilates, and analyzes information. By providing context and understanding, the DMN “gives coherence to cognition.”
Where once we saw the DMN as a simple distraction to productivity, modern neuroscience has shown that it’s so much more.
A window to the world
In the summer of 2015, a quartet of psychology researchers set a group of participants a simple experiment: Devise as many uses as possible for a brick. As the participants brainstormed possible uses—somewhat worryingly, using the brick as a weapon was one of the most common options—the researchers studied their brain activity using an fMRI.
At the beginning of the task, the DMN exploded with activity. But so did the salience network, a large-scale brain network that prioritizes incoming stimuli. At the end of the experiment, activity in the salience network died down, replaced by the executive network, which controls attention.
“Together, results from the whole-brain analysis indicates a greater cooperation between brain regions involved in spontaneous thought, cognitive control, and semantic memory retrieval,” wrote the academics. In other words, the DMN directly contributes to the generation of ideas.
But the fact remains that the DMN can distract us from particular types of work. As the brick experiment showed, the DMN is integral to innovative or creative thinking. But if our minds are fixated on an old conversation, we will struggle to concentrate on more goal-focused tasks like analyzing finances, designing a UI element, or solving a complex mathematical problem.
To be productive in a task-focused setting, our minds need to focus, not wander.
The good news is that you can dial down your DMN. If you focus on something, the trio of DMN brain structures remain quiet—but only so long as you remain focused.
Some try to enter a “flow state” to lock themselves in a state of focus.
“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” explained Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term flow state, in his 2004 TED Talk.
When you enter flow state, your work envelops you and blocks out all distractions or diversions. The DMN doesn’t have a chance to interrupt because you’re so involved. But as anyone who has chased flow state will tell you: It’s ephemeral and fickle. Learning how to purposefully slip into a flow state can take a lifetime.
Others such as Wind suggest people use meditation to harness and control their DMN. Rather than entering DMN by “default,” some learn to choose—or at least influence—when the mental state activates.
“Many people use meditation as a way to manage their Default Mode Network, which involves accepting your thoughts and then letting them go,” Wind explains. “If you have a thought that might be useful, write it down somewhere and let it go. You'll be able to come back later to your notebook or notes on your phone to explore the thoughts and ideas you had. Discuss them with someone and see if there are initiatives or projects you can propose from your thoughts and ideas.”
Some resort to more unusual methods—for example, Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind, writes and speaks enthusiastically on the DMN-dampening benefits of psychedelics.
“A lot of people who try psychedelics experience something called ‘ego dissolution,’ which is what happens when the sense of self totally disappears,” he told Vox. “When people report this feeling, you can see a precipitous drop-off in activity in a part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN).”
Pollan suggests psychedelics drive a “temporary death of the ego,” which may be beneficial for treating depression and other mental health problems, if not necessarily for productivity.
At rest, but not resting
Marcus Raichle first discovered the racing nature of our resting minds in the early-2000s and we still have only begun to understand the network and its role in our cognition.
However, we know enough for most psychologists and researchers to agree that it’s a mistake to view the DMN as an enemy. It shapes how we conceptualize the world. It affects how we see and understand ourselves. It’s part of who we are.
“It is not conducive to making changes in your productivity or well being if you judge yourself as your enemy,” Heather Rashal, a psychotherapist at BetterHelp, tells Dropbox. “The DMN is merely a gear from which to shift.”
Rashal says we stand to make significant gains when we exploit the malleable nature of the brain. Instead of fighting against the DMN, we should learn how to nurture new behaviors and practices. Gradually, we will learn how to shift in and out of our default mode—and with it we’ll learn to access the best our mind has to offer.