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 becomes active when we become inactive. When we don't have a cognitive task (i.e., speaking with someone, solving a puzzle.)
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?
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.
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?
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 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?
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.
One thing our mind likes to wander off to is past experience. So my default mode differs from yours.
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.
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 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 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.
I pointed out that our brain in the default state generates mostly negative thoughts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The brains of people suffering from chronic (mental or physical) pain also shut off harder.
Thoughts might be
30—70% of the pain we feel is not related to what causes it.
You can remove the changes in your DMN caused by life and achieve what is called non-evaluative present awareness.
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.
While the pain does not go away, the amount of unnecessary suffering is substantial.
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.
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!