What is the Default Mode Network and How can Mindfulness Yoga and Art TherapyHelp our Brain Function Optimally?
The Default mode network (DMN) is a set of interacting brain structures first described in 2001 by the Washington University neuroscientist Marcus Raichle. It’s called that because it is most active when the brain is in a resting state. This network links parts of the cerebral cortex (thinking, decision making, higher brain functions) with deeper and evolutionarily older structures of the brain involved in emotion and memory.
It is said to influence and often inhibit, other parts of the brain, especially those involving emotion and memory, preventing signals from being interrupted or interfering with each other. Neuroimaging studies suggest that the DMN is involved in higher-order “metacognitive” activities such as self-reflection, mental projection, time travel, and the ability to attribute mental states to others (Sheline et al. 2009).
What is especially interesting is the connection between the DMN and the Ego. The DMN is believed to be the home of the part of our brain responsible for judgment, tolerance, reality testing, and a sense of self, what Freud called the “ego”. Author, Journalist and experiential researcher Michael Pollan, in his book How to Change Your Mind (2018), referred to this area of the brain as the “me” network. When a subject is given a list of adjectives to consider relative to their self-identity, this area lights up. It also lights up during daydreams, magical thinking, self-reflection, and when we receive Facebook likes (Pollan , 2018). Subsequently, when there is no task at hand, the Default Mode Network is activated “by default”.
Freud said that the ego keeps anarchic forces of the id in check, and Pollan compares this to the DMN maintaining strict connections on brain function developed over the course of our adult lives. “It appears that when activity in the DMN falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away,” Pollan said.
Noticing when we are coming from a place of ego instead of a place of mindful awareness can drastically change our interactions with the world. It is sometimes referred to in Kundalini yoga and other schools of thought as ‘getting out of your own way’ to allow your destiny or Dharmic path to unfold. So eloquently put by British philosopher who popularized Eastern philosophy in the west, Alan Watts, “Ego, the self which he has believed himself to be, is nothing but a pattern of habits” (1966). Mindfulness, Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy are ways for us to create new habits and awareness’s that involve the world around us instead of only ourselves.
WHY MINDFULNESS IS SO IMPORTANT?
“Paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, nonjudgmentally”
What current research is finding is that the internal chatter that leads our thoughts astray when we try to silence the interminable flow of opinions and thoughts in our head when meditating and what Buddhists often refer to as monkey mind, is actually the DMN! It’s the DMN flaring up when the brain has nothing better to do. Through mindfulness and meditation we are able to silence this monkey mind chatter and thus turning the DMN offline to bring a greater sense of calm and peacefulness. Being in a state of Mindfulness also keeps the frontal lobes on line and helps integrate experiences and feelings rather that dissociate from them (Ogden, 2019).
When we are using Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy with mindfulness we are working to reroute our neural networks to change patterns, habits and behaviours in the brain. During this experience, if our DMN kicks in, it inhibits this change from taking place. As expressed by neuroscientist and best selling author Dan Siegel, “Your mind can change your molecules”. This is why staying present and recognizing when we go “off line” is so important. Learning anything new is a process so be gentle with yourself and come back into the present moment with ease, knowing that the more often you do this, the more engrained these new neural networks become.
When we are stressed out the prefrontal cortex goes off line and our judgments become impaired. “Mindfulness keeps the frontal lobes on line and helps integrate rather that dissociate”. (Ogden, 2019). Tapping into the body and noticing your physical sensations and how they come and go are great ways of doing this is. Our physical sensations are not permanent and we notice this when we become mindful. We become aware that our current state of being can change. This can bring us hope when the stresses of life feel awful and overwhelming.
Dissociation, which is the DMN engaged, is also a defense mechanism that can and often has served us in our past. However, many ways we have learnt to cope in life have served our past but are no longer required as we develop and grow through conscious awareness in the here and now. Personal growth has a lot to do with creating new habits and neural pathways in the brain instead on relying on old ways of being that do not serve our highest consciousness.
What is especially interesting in the study of the Default Mode Network is the correlation between depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that people who experience depression and anxiety have these areas of the brain (DMN) more active (Marwood & Wise, 2017). “The baseline imaging findings are consistent with those found in patients with major depressive disorder and suggest that increased connectivity within the DMN may be important in the pathophysiology of both acute and chronic manifestations of depressive illness” (Posner et al. 2013). One can imagine that ruminating over a specific issue that does not hold our body and mind’s highest good, will lead to a downward depressing spiral. Mindfulness and coming into the present moment can actually help stop the rumination of upsetting circumstances and life events. Mindfulness literally makes us happier! What a wonderful tool to keep close.
I wish you grace in your journey to mindful awareness and keeping your Default Mode Network from clouding your ability to stay present and happy.
Please join me May 11th, 2019 from 1-5 at The Sanctuary Space www.thesanctuaryspace.net where we will explore this subject through Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy Techniques.
Charmaine Husum (Livdeep Kaur)
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Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hachette books: New York
Marwood, L., Wise, T. (2017). Instability of default mode network connectivity in major depression: a two-sample confirmation study. Retrieved on May 2, 2019 https://www.nature.com/articles/tp201740
Ogden, P. (2019). Treating Trauma Master Series. Retrieved on April 24, 2019 from https://www.nicabm.com/program/treating-trauma-master-4/?del=homepagepopular
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The breath is a powerful source of transformation. The rate and rhythm of the breath are intimately connected to our mental & emotional states (Brown, Gerbarg, 2012). Just as the emotions and the mind cause the breath to vary, by consciously controlling the breath, we gain control over our mind and our emotions (Trinity College Dublin. 2018).
In my Art Therapy practice, one of the first things I pay attention to when I first see a client is how they are breathing. Noticing the breath says a lot about how a person is feeling in the moment. Notice how you are breathing right now. Is your breath shallow and regulated to the upper chest? Or is it deep and concentrated in the belly? How do you feel in this moment?
One way to stabilize one’s self when feeling a sense of anxiety or stress (where the breath becomes shallow and centralized in the upper chest) is to stop and focus your attention on the breath filling the lower belly with deep inhales through the nose (Bhajan, 2010). Combining this modality of breath-work with the eye gaze by noticing ten things in the room and mentally or aloud saying their colour and what they are, as well as pressing the feet into the floor, will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and bring you into a feeling of calmness (Brantley & el 2007).
On the other hand, when a person is feeling the depths of depression and despair, they may sigh a lot with an almost a sense of defeat. The breath here is usually more in the belly. To bring more life force or prana into the body, I recommend sitting up straight, lengthening the spine and with an open mouth breathing deep and forcefully into the upper chest. This activates the sympathetic nervous system and creates a sense of alertness and aliveness (Levine & Frederick, 2005). Taking this one step further, I would invite the client to raise both arms above the head as they inhale, allowing the eye gaze to follow the hands while keeping the chin level (Assay, Rosenberg & Rand, 1987). Five to ten of these breaths and one will feel a tingling in the whole body, with the eye focus becoming clearer and a sense of elation. So how and why does this happen?
The respiratory system is one of the only major systems in the body which is usually involuntary, but which can also be voluntarily controlled (Levine & Frederick, 1997). Our heart also beats involuntarily but if we want to control it, we slow down our breath bringing us into a state of calmness and relaxation. Breath is the life force that keeps us going. Without breathing we would die. When we are able to control the breath, we are able to control the way we feel in the moment and develop a sense of control over stress levels.
Your rate of breathing and state of mind are inseparable. Using a full yogic breath or pranayama techniques and especially adding mantra or chanting, reprograms your whole cellular memory (Khalsa & Lumpkin, 2015). This is one of the reasons that Kundalini Yoga is so powerful! By consciously directing the flow of our breath, not only are we transporting life force, vitamins, minerals and glandular secretions to our vital organs, we are also transforming the way we think and the way we feel (Bhajan, 2003).
For thousands of years, ancient wisdom techniques from the east have exalted the virtues of breath-focused practices, such as pranayama and meditation to have numerous cognitive benefits including an increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased emotional reactivity, and many other benefits (Immergut & Yates Culadasa, 2017) . What did they know that we are just now validating as scientifically proven? Well, a new study by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, Dublin explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing, cognition and emotion.
The research shows that the way we breathe, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health. What was found is that the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline, is directly affected by breath. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections (Trinity College Dublin, 2018, May 10)!
Outlined here by PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and lead author of the study, Michael Melnychuk:
"Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can't focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can't focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.
This study has shown that as you breathe in, locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized."
Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added:
"Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath, and regulating it in precise ways -- a practice known as pranayama -- changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realized. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind."
Even more exciting in this area of research was the understanding and uncovering of how breath-work and meditation may have an effect of the aging of the brain. Ian Robertson went on to speculate that,
"Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long-term meditators. More 'youthful' brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. Our research offers one possible reason for this -- using our breath to control one of the brain's natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right 'dose' helps the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation."
It is always exciting to witness the acceptance of Eastern healing modalities as being scientifically proven in our Western medical system. My personal feeling is that this mirrors our global understandings and acceptance of one another, a sharing of information rather that a fear that another’s information will taint or somehow invalidate our own. I look forward to more research being done in the areas of mindfulness, mediation, yoga and neuroscience to help heal and transform our brains and the way we engage in the world.
“If there is anything divine in you, it’s your breath” Yogi Bhajan.
May all beings be Blessed,
Charmaine Husum (Livdeep Kaur)
Charmaine Husum (Livdeep Kaur) runs a private Art Therapy practice (Centre of the Heart) in Calgary Alberta. She is also an Artist, Kundalini Yoga teacher and trained in the somatic approach of Integrative Body Psychotherapy and Reiki. Her approach to healing is within a Humanistic, Feminist lens that believes the power of healing lies within the individual. Her current research enthusiasms are in neuroplasticity, neuroscience, epigenetics, mystical integration and intergenerational trauma; on which she is currently writing a book and creating online courses. She specializes in working with trauma and symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD as well as Autism, Depression, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Addiction and other mental health symptoms. She is honoured to offer a workshop at The Sanctuary Space Saturday May 11th, 2019 on Brain Health using Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy techniques and looks forward to meeting you all soon.
Assay, D., Lee Rosenberg, J., Rand, M. (1987). Body, Self, and Soul: Sustaining Integration. Lake Worth, FL: Humanics Publishing Group
Brantley, J. MD, McKay, M. PhD, Wood, J.C. PsyD, (2007). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications Inc.
Brown, R., Gerbarg, P. (2012). The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions. Boulder, Colorado: Shambala Publishing.
Bhajan, Y. (2003). The Aquarian Teacher: Level One Instructor Book. Santa Cruz NM: Kundalini Research Institute
Bhajan, Y. (2010) Transformation Vol. 1: Mastering the Self, edited by Sat Purkh Kaur Khalsa, Santa Cruz, NM: Kundalini Research Institute.
Immergut, M. PhD, Yates Culadasa, J. PhD (2017). The Mind Illuminated: a Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. London: Hay House Publishing
Khalsa Kaur, J, Lumpkin, N. (2015). Enlightened Bodies: Exploring Physical and Subtle Human Anatomy.Santa Cruz, NM: Kundalini Research Institute
Levine, P., & Frederick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Levine, P., & Frederick, A. (2005). Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True Inc.
Nhất, H., Ho, M., & Vo-Dinh, M. (1987). The miracle of mindfulness: An introduction to the practice of meditation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. (2012). Sacred Therapies: The Kundalini Yoga Meditaion Handbook for Mental Health. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London.
Singh Khalsa, D. M.D. (2013). This is Your Brain on Yoga by the Founding President and Medical Director Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation FIRST POSTED IN www.SPIRITVOYAGE.com on November 5, 2013, Retrieved April 24, 2019 from https://kathrynmccuskerkundalini.com/this-is-your-brain-on-yoga/
Trinity College Dublin. (2018, May 10). The Yogi masters were right -- meditation and breathing exercises can sharpen your mind: New research explains link between breath-focused meditation and attention and brain health. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 28, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180510101254.htm
Both Art Therapy and Kundalini Yoga share the powerful healing effect of integrating
the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Typically the left side of the brain rules the
orderly, statistical, mathematical, logical, practical, rational way of thinking, seeing
things in straight lines. The right side of the brain represents passion, experience of taste
and feelings, creativity, free spirit, imagination, yearning, sensuality, movement, vivid
colours and the senses.
Without activities that stimulate integration within each side of the brain, it is difficult for
one side to make sense of how the other sees things. You cannot put feelings and
expressions into boxes as the left hemisphere would require, they will become restricted;
they must be felt to truly be experienced. Subsequently, the right brain also has difficulty
making sense of how the left-brain sees things. As a society, we tend to be mostly leftbrain
dominant and this causes an imbalance that can create a great disruption in the
natural flow of everyday living. This is why it is so important to create integration and
balance within both sides of the brain.
Observing and especially drawing or creating art allows for this integration in the most
therapeutic way. As does meditation, mindfulness and the many yogic postures within
Kundalini Yoga. Kundalini Yoga is a prime example of creating space for this
occurrence. Whenever we do anything that requires logical and creative thought
simultaneously, we are integrating the hemispheres of the brain.
Another powerful way both Kundalini Yoga and Art Therapy work to change the brain is
by rerouting neurotransmitters. Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb first used the phrase,
“Neurons that fire together, wire together” in 1949 to describe how pathways in the
brain are formed and reinforced through repetition. What this means is we develop habits
and ways of being in the world (that may not always serve our highest purpose). Both Art
Therapy and Kundalini offer an opportunity to explore life in new ways using mindful
awareness of our emotions, messages from within the body and tactile sensory expression
through art making.
What is Art Therapy?
Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to
improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well being of individuals of all
ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self expression
helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage
behavior, reduce stress, increase self esteem and self awareness, and achieve insight.
Art therapy uses the creation of art as a primary mode of expression and communication
(American Art Therapy Association, 2013). It integrates psychotherapeutic techniques
with the creative process to improve mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes referred to
as creative arts therapy or expressive arts therapy, it encourages people to express and
understand emotions through artistic expression and the creative process.
By making art in a spontaneous way, one is able to bring unconscious feelings to
consciousness. Art Therapy can help a person give expression to their feelings and
hidden inner conflicts that they may not have words for. As one creates, they are able to
uncover aspects of self that may be locked in the body. When people are then able to
associate feelings verbally to the artwork created, the therapy speeds up recovery.
The idea of using art in psychotherapy has been around since the early days of Carl
Jung. This modality of healing has continued to grow and expand showing people how
the benefits of making art in a safe, secure setting can be. It is through the making of art
that feelings trapped inside the body can be moved and expanded on, bringing an
awareness to ourselves that was before uncovered.
What is Kundalini Yoga?
Kundalini Yoga is described as the Yoga of Awareness or Householders’ Yoga,
accessible to all. It is a powerful science that rewires neurotransmitters in the brain
working on not only the physical body but also the nervous, endocrine and glandular
A large focus within the practice, for instance, is the drishti or eye-gaze during
meditations and postures (asanas). When the eye gaze is focused behind closed lids
between the eyebrows (third eye), a pressure builds in this region activating the pituitary
and pineal master glands. This works to regulate the whole body and increases serotonin
and other neurotransmitter levels to bring a calming, happy, peace to the mind. Through
regulating hormones and the glandular system, Kundalini yoga strengthens, heals and
changes the brain, body and the way we respond to stresses in our lives.
Another fascinating component of Kundalini yoga is its ability to remove emotional
blocks within the body. As life goes on, traumatic and stressful moments we experience
become lodged within our bodies. Without opportunities for safe and healthy release,
these memories and ways we develop to cope in the world slowly become a part of our
personality. Although we may have needed these coping mechanisms at one or more
times in our life, often they become a source of pain, as they no longer serve the purpose
they once did. For instance, maybe you were bullied as a child and now find yourself on
guard and ready to attack when provoked, when in reality the threat is no longer with
you. Perhaps as a child you were scolded or even physical reprimanded by your parents
for being “too loud” or “acting out” and this has created a deep-seated fear within you to
speak up for your self in the world. Maybe this stifling of your voice and spirit has even
created a thyroid condition or goiter? These emotions in the body are real and will
eventually manifest into physical ailments. By bringing mindful awareness to the body
and facilitating release through postures, mantra and meditation, we are invited to let go
of these parts that no longer serve us and hold us back from living life to our fullest
potential. In this way, Kundalini Yoga can bring about strong releases of emotion that
help to clear the subtle bodies that sustain and support our soul’s path.
By combining Art Therapy approaches and Kundalini Yoga, I invite you to experience
the profound healing that both modalities offer. No artistic expertise is needed and there
is never any pressure to fold like a pretzel or push yourself beyond what is safe for your
own body. Honouring and listening to your body and allowing space for feelings and
messages to arise is all that is required for you to step into a new way of being in the
world. I look forward to crossing paths with you soon.
May all beings be Blessed,
Livdeep Kaur (Charmaine Husum)
Charmaine Husum runs a private Art Therapy practice online and in Calgary Alberta. She is also an Artist, Kundalini Yoga teacher and trained in the somatic approach of Integrative Body Psychotherapy, Reiki and Mystical Integration. Her current research enthusiasms are in neuroplasticity, neuroscience, epigenetics, mystical integration and intergenerational trauma; on which she is currently writing a book and creating online courses. She specializes in working with trauma and symptoms of PTSD and C-PTSD as well as Autism, Depression, Anxiety, Eating Disorders, Addiction and other mental health symptoms.