The Brain’s Default Mode: What Is It And Why Meditation Is The Antidote

Life happens when you aren’t on autopilot

Arno Slabbinck
Sep 23 · 9 min read

“The habit of spending nearly every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts are. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell.” ~ Sam Harris


What is Default Mode Network

DMN; Magnetic resonance imaging of areas of the brain in the default mode network.

Maybe, you’ve never heard of the Brain default network mode before. But you should be familiar with it. You experience it daily. It’s what you sense as the voice in your mind

It’s what American Psychologist Julian Jaynes refers to as the bicameral mind

In his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian says that until recently as 3000 years ago, human beings were robots, acting out the will of the gods. Following a voice in their heads.

This is like how we live today. But in our case, the voice doesn’t come from the gods; it’s our inner voice.

It’s a voice that goes like

“ That was a foolish thing to say”,

“ Why did I do that! Stupid, stupid, stupid”

These inner dialogs are always with us. They all come from that nagging, always-on, defeatist voice that never shuts up. In Eastern Traditions, we call this the “Monkey Mind.” Science describes that voice as the default network mode or DMN.

Researchers have studied the default network mode for decades now. It’s a group of brain regions( medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobule) that are important for our survival.

It’s most active when we are awake. When we do what human beings well — thinking about ourselves, remembering the past, imagining the future,…Anything but being focused on what’s happening right now.

The DMN is useful because it’s involved in our memory, particularly autobiographic episodic memories — These are daily memories that play a role in helping us make a model of the world, predict the future, based on past events.

But although the default network mode is essential, it has its drawbacks. Recent research has associated diseases like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia with the DMN.

Since those discoveries, researchers started looking for answers. In particular, how to reverse the effects of the DMN or even control it.

What they found is that therapies like Meditation could influence the default network.

But what the research showed us is that the DMN isn’t designed to make us happy. It’s evolutionary us is to protect us. And one study proved just that.

A 2010 paper of Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert described how they developed a smartphone app that asked people throughout the day what they were doing and how happy they were.

Based on a quarter of a million queries posed of about 5000 people from 83 different countries, they found that people think most of their past or future.

What the researchers concluded was that people end up more unhappy if they let their minds wander.

Luckily, that mind-wandering isn’t always on.

There are times we are free of that voice. In particular, when we are doing something active. Something we love to do.

In those moments, we feel at our best. That’s when you are in “FLOW.”

Flow has been known for a while now. You may know it under a different name like — runner’s high, being in the zone. If you’re a basketball player, you know it as being unconscious. Flow is a more technical term.

Science defines Flow as an optimal state of consciousness. In flow, you perform and feel your best. The task you’re doing absorbs you so much that everything else disappears.

You may have experienced it. Things like your sense of self-consciousness vanish entirely, time dilates — which is a fancy way of saying it passes strangely.

Even your decision-making happens effortlessly. Every decision and action flows seamlessly into the next. Flow is as close to picture-perfect decision-making as you can get. That’s why it’s called flow.

Steven Kother about Flow

Now, to understand flow and how it works, I need to talk about the neuroscience. That’s where things become interesting.

There’re two crucial points to understand.

From a neuroanatomical level, we only use 10% of our brains.

So top human performance, aka flow would mean the brain on overdrive. Turns out; that is false.

Inflow, parts of the brain, don’t become hyperactive but they deactivate. We know the name for that state as transient — meaning temporary — hypo (it means slowing doing, shut down), frontality.

Frontality refers to your prefrontal cortex or the executive function of the brain.

It’s where all our higher cognitive functions resist. Our sense of will, morality, a sense of self, complex decision-making etcetera all comes from our PFC. It’s what makes ‘you’ human.

Now, in flow, that area goes quiet.

That also the reason time passes so strangely. We calculate time all over the prefrontal cortex/PFC.

Also, your dorsal lateral prefrontal cortexknown as your inner critic — goes off.

When that happens, magic takes place. You feel instantly free of yourself. As a result, things like creativity and risk-taking go through the roof. You probably feel you’re invincible. That’s why flow is considered the most addictive state.

The brain also produces 5 of the most potent neurochemicals

These are all performance-enhanced neurochemicals, but also feel-good pleasure drugs.

The brain releases neurochemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and endorphins all together. If you were to buy a drug version of all those neurochemicals and combine them, You’d end up dead or in a coma. The brain combines these neurochemicals beautifully.

One of those neurochemicals you’ve probably heard of called dopamine.

We associate dopamine with learning, creativity, and motivation — It makes you capable of taking in more information and process it more deeply.

And that’s just one neurotransmitter. Imagine the effect of the rest.

Unfortunately for us, the brain’s default mode is the opposite of this enjoyable state of high focus and high performance.

The good news is that meditation is as close to flowing as you can get.

Meditation is more than spiritual hokum.

Meditation has gained much scientific interest in the last few decades. And for a good reason. Meditation can change the brain.

A study from Harward found that when people went through 8 weeks of meditation, critical areas of the brain that associate with awareness, stress, and empathy change.

They grew new grey matter in their cerebral cortex, which connects to attention and emotional integration.

Also, the grey matter in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, deceased.

They gained more control over their emotions

Even impulse control becomes better.

Besides those changes, Meditators can also shut down their inner voice. But they do this when they aren’t meditating — they can shut down their default mode network. And set a new one.

Since research showed that meditation has enormous benefits, high performers have included meditation in their work routine. It might surprise you at how many high achievers do meditation.

Tim Ferriss — Author of 4HourWorkWeek & Tribe Of Mentors

Tim Ferriss is a fantastic, smart-ass guy. Look up the 4-hour workweek, and you know what I mean.

For learning, productivity, launching a successful product, Marketing, etcetera. There’s no better guru.

He doesn’t just make wild predictions; he backs them up with experiments.

And besides experimenting, he’s also on a mission to help the common man. He has a podcast called The Tim Ferriss Show, where he interviews the top-world experts in any arena of life.

Because He’s been doing this for years now, Tim has gained enough expertise to know what makes successful people tick.

By interviewing 500 of the top world-class performers, he saw that the most practiced routine they have is meditation. At least 80% of them have some mindfulness practice/meditation.

The top-elite of high achievers know that is meditation is a game-changer. Not just professionally but also personally. The benefits are too huge.

That’s the reason they adopted mindfulness.

They know that it can help them gets more control over their lives

And that meditation can stop them from being yanked around by the voice in their head.

So if you’re ready to try it go ahead. But if there’s still worry in the back of your mind because you worry about what people will think of you, don’t be!

Meditation will become the next health easy decision as exercise.

In the 1940s — when you told people you went running — they asked:” Who’s chasing you?”.

Today, running is as acceptable as watching tv. People combine the 2 activities together sometimes.

If you tell people you meditate. They will look at you like you’re weird.

Soon, that will change.

I will make a prediction: Meditation will join the pantheon of no-brainers.

Similar to brushing your teeth before bed or showering after a long workout, That’s how normal it will be.

A common assumption that we make, somewhat subconscious, is that happiness depends on external factors such as success or things.

We’re chasing it hoping one day if we get it, all our problems will melt away.

It doesn’t. All we’re doing is fulfilling our pleasures/desires and avoiding boredom/pain. We’re confusing pleasure-seeking with happiness.

From an evolutionary standpoint, nature doesn’t care if you’re happy it cares about is passing on your genes and notice what’s essential for the survival of the species.

Evolution has nothing to gain from you gazing up the night sky and feeling awe.

Remembering when you saw a rattlesnake, however, matters. That’s why the brain evolved to focus on things that can harm/stress us out.

The tendency towards negativity is what the brain’s default mode network is all about.

However, the brain is plastic — meaning changeable.

We can form new neural pathways to become happier. We can choose our destiny.

We don’t have to live our lives like we’re half dead. A happier life is one doorstep away, and meditation is knocking.

The bottom line, happiness is a skill, just like you can train your body in the gym. So you can prepare yourself to be happy. And being mindful might do the trick

However, it doesn’t mean you won’t be vulnerable. It just means your going to navigate life with a little more ease.

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Arno Slabbinck

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Here’s an active, analytical, science-y mind open to explore everything from Health, Longevity, Data Science, Nutrition, Psychology, Neuroscience and Nature

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