What is the default mode network, and why does it matter to you?

Unless you are already a fan, I believe that what I am sharing about the default mode network of your brain will provide an “aha”-moment. 

This article is a bit on the dry side—but I promise: It's well worth your time. 

The default state of the brain

The default state of the brain becomes active when we become inactive. When we don't have a cognitive task (i.e., speaking with someone, solving a puzzle.)

The Default Mode Network of the Brain (DMN)

How I learned about the DMN

Ever since I first learned about emotional intelligence in 1996, this knowledge was like my iron vest. 

Whatever life threw my way—I could handle it. 

But then I suffered a traumatic experience that lasted for many years. 

As usual, I used my EQ to recover. I was positive; I had confident expectations. Everything was good. Or was it? 

When emotional intelligence didn't work

The strangest thing happened. I had a great mindset; I focused on my goals and did all the things a person with emotional intelligence would do after a traumatic event. 

But as soon as I relaxed, I caught ... myself? I caught myself thinking strange thoughts. 

Very negative thoughts. Thoughts of worry and doubt. They did not feel like my own thoughts. It's not the way I think. 

I knew I have to get to the root of what was going on with my head and started researching. It took a while until I came across the studies of some Universities, i.e., the University of Zurich and the University of Geneva. 

Meanwhile, I have integrated what I have learned 2 years back into my emotional intelligence training. 

You have to hear this!

This might be the single most common reason people cannot change. 

The resting state

Just look at that! Even though we had little knowledge about the default mode of our brain until 15 years ago, we know that our brain is most active when we are inactive for over 100 years.

By the way, this also shows how you can benefit from brainwave entrainment audio—it helps to tickle our brain to swing at the desired frequency. Our brain is more active when we are relaxed than when we are excited.

But what is it doing when we sent it on a break?

The relaxed state triggers the default mode network

In the default state that the brain turns on and off autonomously, certain brain regions are active. They shut off as soon as we pick up the next cognitive task (focus on something and stop relaxing.)

What happens when the DMN turns on?

What is remarkable is how fast we get into the default state and how “default” it is. The University of Geneva discovered something interesting: 

In their research, they gave people difficult cognitive tasks. Like math problems. It turned out the areas described above became less active when people were focused on their tasks. 

During brief breaks (as short as 20 seconds) they could measure that even in a short time span like this, people fell back into the default mode. It took about 10 seconds. 

A quick anecdote: That reminded me of a yoga cartoon I saw a few years ago. A group of people resting on their mats for a meditation. Over each head was a speech bubble: 

“Oh Lord, I am the only one who is not relaxed.”
“Damn, I have to go. I'll be late for my meeting.”
“I have gained so much weight, I wonder what the other people are thinking about me.”

Another University compared the brain activity of regular people with those of 12 Zen meditation experts. The expert Zen meditators who were trained in focusing their attention slipped into the default mode as well. The experienced meditators could pull out of the default mode faster, though.

The meditators also noticed that they slipped.

But you see: even experienced meditators have a hard time fully controlling their minds. Our mind wants to wander.

What is the default state like when we are in it?

What is the default mode like?

One way to think about the default mode:

In the default mode, we define who we are. Where we stand in the world. We think about past and future. Evaluate ourselves and what others think about us. That lets us function as social creatures.

What the brain loves to do in the default state

What the brain loves to do in the default mode

One thing our mind likes to wander off to is past experience. So my default mode differs from yours.

  • Identify problems and try to solve them (look for something that's wrong). What should I be worried about? What could go wrong?
  • Thinks about self, preferably in the past, desire .. likes to tell yourself stories. (mostly self-referential processing)
  • Considering what other people think about the relationship to you. “What do they think about me?” “How do I fit in?” “What do I want in relationships?” “How am I comparing to my neighbor?”
    … most often in a self-referential way.
  • Judging. Our brain loves to judge. It has a STRONG bias towards negative evaluation.
    For instance : (It's too warm, too cold; I should be different) and also about other people, “What's wrong with them?”

Activating the DMN on purpose

activating the dmn on purpose

Scientists found that the best way to get someone into a very deep default mode is to ask them for a moral judgment of others. For instance, people who vote for a different party.

Another trigger for activating the default mode network is self-criticism.

Scientists asked people to criticize themselves while they were in the brain scanner.

So they were going down on themselves and remembered all the situations where they felt shame. Guess what? The brain activity looked similar to the default state of the brain.

One thing the default mode likes to do—and we are not even consciously aware of it—is to bring out some bad memories and self-limiting thoughts.

That might be good for our survival—it's definitely not good for our happiness.

Another study had people say negative things about themselves. Like “You are such a loser!” “Why do you always mess things up!” “You'll never be loved”! “You'll never be successful!”

And again, the same brain activity as in default mode.

So that's the kind of things the brain likes to do when left alone.

Another thing the default mode seems to like to do is make up stories. Bad stories. Worst-case scenarios.

If you ask people to do that deliberately, the brain activity looks just like the default state.

So … that's what the untrained brain does by default.

DMN is good for survival

What we can learn from rats

What we can learn from rats about mindfulness

Scientists put a dog into a brain scanner. They could not figure out what the default state of a dog is. The dog, the mysterious creature?

They did a brain scan on chimpanzees, who have a similar brain to humans. It turned out they also have a similar default mode network.

I don't know the structures and culture of the monkey world. Maybe they are thinking about the new guy who threatens their social status.

In any way, that implies that the default state cannot be just formed by society and our culture. At least in parts, it must be … well, it must just be there…

But why did I put a rat on the slide?

The default mode network of a rat

The default state of a rat is NOW.

When they are in the default state, they are not thinking about what happened yesterday or worry about what could happen tomorrow. 

They smell, taste the world.

They are in the now.

The brain and disease

The regions that light up when we are in the default mode are identical with the regions where plaque forms in the brain of a person suffering from Alzheimer's. 

Brain parts that are not activated in the default mode are the area for language and a part responsible for more conceptual, abstract thinking.

The brain and disease

I pointed out that our brain in the default state generates mostly negative thoughts. 

default state and disease

But that's an example where you can see that the default mode is important for our survival and existence. In the default mode, we decide who we are and where we stand. 

alzheimer and default state

Social anxiety disorder, depression, and the default mode network

social anxiety disorder and depression

In both, people with depression and people with anxiety, the default state is more active. Especially for people with depression, it is also much harder to shut it down. Even if they start a cognitive task.

(With healthy people, the default state shuts down as soon as they pick up a task.) Depressive people sometimes cannot shut it down.

The default mode network and depression

Default mode network depression

Life changes the brain

life changes the brain

You do not have to have had a traumatic experience. Any form of pain, mental or physical, changes our brain. Every break-up, every business failure, accident, disease … you name it.

Trauma and the default mode network

default mode network trauma

What traumatizes you is individual. It does not have to be an event of a certain severeness, like being involved in a war, an earthquake or being abused for 20 years.

Perhaps that one time you have been let go was enough. Or when your partner betrayed you.

Whatever negative experience shocked you, or you could say hurt you by surprise, or persisted over a longer time can be traumatic.

When we experience trauma, something else happens. Another part of the brain, the part that's responsible for detecting threats, becomes active. Actually, it becomes a part of the default state.

The implications? 

Our default state that's full of negative bias and loves beating us down, gets company by a threat seeker?

From now on, when you relax, your brain will scan the world for potential threats.

We only see a tiny part of the reality.
We decide with our thoughts, with our words, what we want our brain to look out for. 

Both is around us at all times. We decide which parts we see more of. And we react depending on our expectation/fear. 

After an earthquake—even years after—your brain will still look for the signs of another earthquake and feed you thoughts of sorrow, worry, fear, and doubt. 

Unless you make it, it won't stop. 

We'll search the world for threats, and we will interpret people and the world as threats.

That inarguably has a negative effect on our lives.

Chronic pain and the default state

chronic pain default mode network

The brains of people suffering from chronic (mental or physical) pain also shut off harder. 

Thoughts might be 

  • Why is that happening to me
  • What if the pain will never stop
  • What if the disease gets worse
  • Why do I have this and other people are healthy

30—70% of the pain we feel is not related to what causes it. 

The Alternative DMN

alternative dmn

You can remove the changes in your DMN caused by life and achieve what is called non-evaluative present awareness. 

Difference in perceiving pain/trained and untrained mind

difference trained and untrained mind

What if I told you that you can remove unnecessary suffering from your life?

In tests, experienced meditators showed more activity in the part of the brain responsible for processing the actual pain. And less in the DMN, the part that creates additional suffering. 

Altering your DMN can lessen your suffering

pain experiment

While the pain does not go away, the amount of unnecessary suffering is substantial. 

pain experiment conclusion

Mindfulness changes your brain

The good news is: Mindfulness changes the brain. 

It allows you to remove brain regions that have become part of your default state by pain from your DMN and greatly reduce your worrying and suffering. 

The better news is: There are many ways to mindfulness. Even for people who dislike meditation. 

Meditation is the best thing you can do.

But if you dislike meditation so much that you just wouldn't do it, there are other ways to mindfulness.

My DMN/Mindfulness training (included in Project Phoenix Emotional Intelligence Training and available separately) offers alternatives.

Mindfulness changes the default mode network of the brain

Aurorasa Coaching Training - Thrive more, suffer less!

Project Phoenix is the first emotional intelligence training that helps people to alter their DMN and achieve the alternative state.

Check out my training or contact me to discuss your individual needs. I offer on-site, remote, and self-coaching training!


University of Zuerich

University of Geneva

University of Stanford

Oxford Academic