Embracing the Default Mode Network

Sometimes, it’s incredibly gratifying, and reassuring to realize that you’re not alone in your struggles, that people have oftentimes been in similar places in their own lives, and that part of the human experience is our innate desire to help one another and conquer these challenges.

Yesterday, I began reading Ribbonfarm’s post on Mak[ing] Your Own Rules, written by Venkatesh Rao. In reflection, I’m sure that I subconsciously prioritized reading this post as an easy fix, a way to put off actually establishing a modicum of internally-derived consistency and discipline. In fact, the article opened my mind to the broader mindset and motivation behind the creation of these life rules in the first place (borne of that very subconscious thinking), providing a much-needed bit of reassurance and hopefully setting me down a path of defining my own rules that will be useful, and purposeful in my own life.

Rao introduces the reader to the cognitive dichotomy between task-positive cognition (TPC) and the default mode network (DMN) as the two alternating states of the human brain.

TPC involves tasks that require a level of unconscious or imperceptible concentration, such as driving without crashing, cooking without being burned, or carrying out linear tasks. These tasks, and the flow-like mental and emotional state that these actions can engender, are oftentimes described as being ‘relaxing.’

On the other hand, DMN is focused on non-urgent decision making that governs your mind when not consumed by task-positive work, taking over when your brain has “nothing in particular it needs to do.” It is a state of open-ended, mind wandering that oftentimes leads to meandering existential questions of one’s life, purpose, occupation, etc.

While I’ve oftentimes thought of this DMN state as something that’s condemned me (and countless others) to a permanent sentence of in-your-own-head imprisonment, it turns out that there’s actually been research done on this task-negative cognition, or default mode network.

Among this research is the most common places our minds travel to during DMN states (and yes, these look familiar to me):

  1. Autobiographical thinking (reflecting on your life)
  2. Thinking about relationships (other-regarding cognitions including envy, admiration etc)
  3. What-if ruminations about the future
  4. Creative-play imaginative thinking
  5. Idle day-dreaming exploring pleasing thoughts
  6. Aspects of sleep dreaming
  7. Anxious, obsessive thoughts about non-clear-and-present threats
  8. Unfocused attention (scanning the environment)

Rao explains:

“What is common to all these themes is that they involve things you care about, but lack sufficient information, agency, computational tractability, or environmental enabling conditions to act on. You can’t be task-positive about them. There’s nothing to do immediately, only stuff to think about. If you have a breakthrough insight while in task-negative mode, then perhaps there will be a way to act (or a determination of action being impossible). Task-negative regimes of thought are nightmarish hell zones for doerists, wonderland play zones for contemplative types.”

This incredibly explanation provides an appeal to his readers for the need for life rules, to not only govern the “anarchy of the mind” that is the DMN, but also determine when and how to switch between TPC and DMN states, and appropriately regulate mindsets and the associated expense of energy.

One of the things that’s consumed me since making the decision to put off the MBA for this current year is how I go about moving forward; how do i capitalize on this newly ‘non-urgent’ time, without imminent deadlines, tests to take, or essays to write. Naturally, the DMN has been working overtime in this period, as I attempt to rationalize my past decisions, develop a level of comfort in the day-to-day, and put myself on a path to future success.

Being given this dichotomy, laid out neatly, feels like a breakthrough to someone like me who oftentimes finds themselves trapped in cycles of DMN with little refuge or way out. Understanding that there can be a healthy balance between the mind-wandering and task-based productive mindsets, ideally governed by a rule set, feels both liberating and hopeful – that the ‘beast’ can be honed to your own benefit. Through these “rules,” which if done correctly are meant to be broken / interated on / updated over time, as well as through meditation, which Rao points to as a way of “imposing authority” on the DMN, there is a proven framework in place and one that can help manage this balance.

From there, Rao lays out his “rules” for making one’s own rules, including beginner / moderate / advanced levels based on complexity, where you are at in your life, and your likelihood of adopting these rules consistently. Hopefully, the ‘beginner’ portion will be instructive, and I can begin to outline my own rules in a forthcoming post.

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