Default Mode Network: Your Brain on Autopilot

Have you ever caught yourself driving for a while only to realize you weren’t really paying attention and were much further along than you realized? Do you catch your mind telling yourself the same story in your mind about why you aren’t good enough or why you will always be stuck where you are in life? Say hello to the default mode network.

The default mode network (DMN) is a specific type of neural processing that occurs when the mind is in a ‘passive’ state, or in other words, is presented with no or very limited cognitive demands. The DMN shifts into full gear when we are doing tasks that don’t require much thought or attention such as repetitive actions we do all of the time (driving, brushing teeth, making coffee, etc.).

This results in ‘mind wandering’ that can entail either creative thoughts (non-perseverative) or worry and rumination (perseverative thoughts). The types of thoughts that arise are ALSO a by-product of the DMN. So repetitive thoughts and beliefs that have been ingrained in you your whole life from family, school, society and peers will also be programmed into the DMN.

The DMN is simply your brain on autopilot or in a semi-resting state.

Examples of this automation are driving to work, brushing your teeth, as well as automatic thoughts and emotions that arise in the mind. This also includes repetition and practice that creates proficiency at a sport or instrument. Overtime playing an instrument or sport becomes more effortless and requires less thought.

Essentially the DMN is an accumulation of patterns that the brain has picked up on and has stored in the brain hardware. Kind of similar to your internet browser remembering past websites so that you don’t have to physically type them in each time.  It’s the brain being efficient.

The brain doesn’t want to expend energy consciously thinking about each step involved in brushing your teeth; choosing a hand, lifting the arm, opening your mouth, moving said arm in a forward backward motion, etc. If you repeat a thought or task multiple times, the brain catches on and stores that data in the DMN so it can be called upon the next time you need it. The brain lays out a blueprint for your body to follow so that you do not have to consciously think about each step as you are doing them.

I invite you to take a few moments to really pay attention the next time you brush your teeth (which hopefully you do…). Notice the steps that occur that you aren’t really thinking about. Also notice when you are daydreaming if there are recurring patterns in the type of thoughts arising. This my friend is the DMN.

Oh and in case you were dying to know which areas of the brain the DMN shows activity in, it’s major hubs are specifically located in the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the angular gyrus.

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