What is the Default Mode Network and How can Mindfulness Yoga and Art Therapy Help 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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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
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Yvette I. Shelinea, Deanna M. Barcha, Joseph L. Pricee, Melissa M. Rundleb, S. Neil Vaishnavib,Abraham Z. Snyder, Mark A. Mintuna, Suzhi Wanga, Rebecca S. Coalsonb, and Marcus E. Raichle (2019). The default mode network and self-referential processes in depression. Retrieved on May 3, 2019 from https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/106/6/1942.full.pdf, PNASFebruary 10, 2009vol. 106no. 61947
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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.