The Art of Mind-Wandering: Do Nothing Practices to Stimulate the Default Mode Network
“Everybody’s doing something. We’ll doing nothing!”
George Costanza in Seinfeld
One of my favorite “doctor” jokes goes as follows: surgeons know nothing and do everything; internists know everything and do nothing; and psychiatrists know nothing and do nothing. It turns out, we psychiatrists may be onto something.
In the 1970’s, a researcher by the name of David Ingar discovered that the highest amount of blood flow in the frontal lobe of the brain occurred when a person is at rest.1 This finding was corroborated by Raichle, et al in 2007 using positron emission tomography (PET scan) which conclusively confirmed that the frontal lobe is most active when a person is not actively attending their focus on anything. Raichle then labeled the functioning of this area of the brain and its multiple connections the “DMN” or Default Mode Network.2
What does the Default Mode Network do?
It turns out that the DMN has multiple functions that ultimately play a very important role in regulating emotional health including attending well, remembering the past, thinking about the future, reflecting on one’s emotional state, thinking about others, determining and inferring the purpose of other people’s actions, reflecting on the beliefs and actions of others and integrating auditory, visual and bodily sensory information.
When the brain is involved in activities that we commonly perceive as “doing something” or that, in other words, require sustained attention, the DMN shuts down. Such activities include things like generating, receiving and anticipating text messages and emails, playing video games, binge watching one’s favorite shows, continuously engaging with social media sites and always being in “fix it” or problem-solving mode. And when the DMN is deactivated by these activities, the brain’s capacity for healthy emotional and socail functioning is greatly reduced resulting in an increased risk for multiple different psychiatric disorders, impaired social interactions, suicidal thinking, repetitive negative thoughts, communication deficits, impairment in forming long term memories and substance use disorders.
How can I activate my DMN?
The good news is that this area of the brain can be activated or “exercised” by being at rest! This rest could be achieved by actual sleep, meditation, physical exertion and even good old-fashioned daydreaming. The more the DMN is activated, the better it will function. It is no wonder then that exercise and meditation-based psychotherapies such as mindfulness have clear and convincing scientific evidence of their effectiveness in treating many psychiatric conditions. It has also been shown that other psychotherapies and even psychiatric medications can all activate the DMN in the brain as well.
In the end, it all boils down to the fact that the more time we spend “doing nothing”, as in the types of rest discussed above, and practice “knowing nothing”, by various meditative practices, the better emotional and relational health we are likely to have. I always knew that joke wasn’t really a put-down of psychiatrists!
Here are some things that I have incorporated into my life to promote the stimulation of my own DMN:
- Turning off the radio while driving in the car to and/or from work
- Having a 24-hour period once each week when I commit to “rest” which for me includes no emails, no texting, no prolonged “screen time” of any sort and no work (including work for my job outside the home and household chores, other than chores related to cooking), but may include light physical activity
- Vigorous exercise of about 20 – 30 minutes duration followed by yoga/stretching at least 3-4 days a week
- Longer episodes (at least 3 hours) of lighter exercise such as hiking, biking on a rail trail, cross country skiing, walking, etc. about twice a month
- 10 – 15-minute meditative power naps
- Engaging in a practice I call meditative reading where I will read a short passage from a book that is philosophical, poetical or spiritual in nature and then spend time reflecting on what I just read; I try to do this activity in nature when conditions allow
- I will also on occasion journal my dreams and then consider their meaning and/or tell them to someone I trust to get their feedback
These are just a few ideas of course, but the possibilities are endless. Please give yourself permission to be as creative as you’d like regarding how you can incorporate more “restful” activities into your life, get that DMN activated, and enjoy a more satisfying and emotionally healthy life.
- Buckner RL, Andrews-Hanna JR, Schacter DL. The brain’s default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1124:1-38. doi:10.1196/annals.1440.011
- Raichle ME, Snyder AZ. A default mode of brain function: a brief history of an evolving idea. Neuroimage. 2007;37(4):1083-1090; discussion 1097-1099. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.
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