The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a system of connected brain areas that influences what you think about when you are not focused on a specific task. It can influence your pattern of reactions to social situations and what you think about yourself. It can be behind problems with rumination. There are ways to calm down your Default Mode Network.
What is the Default Mode Network?
The default mode network (DMN) is a system of connected brain areas that show increased activity when a person is not focused on something else. The DMN is especially active when one engages in introspective activities such as daydreaming, contemplating the past or the future, or thinking about the perspective of another person. It is the default state that your brain goes to when you are not focused on a particular task.
When your default mode network kicks in you may start with daydreaming. However, you may start to ruminate over what happened the day before and what will happen in the days to come. If you tend to be anxious about past and future performance, then the default mode network can hijack the mind to mull over worries when it does not have something else to focus on.
Brain Regions Involved with the Default Mode Network
The default mode network (DMN) spans a number of brain regions, incorporating parts of the prefrontal, parietal, and temporal cortices that show joint activation, or deactivation, in connection with particular mental functions. The DMN is distributed across three major subdivisions (Raichle, 2015):
- Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which plays an important modulatory role when coping with adverse conditions, and regulates motivational drive in favour of goal-oriented behaviours.
- Dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), which often has been associated with self-referential judgments in the present and is activated by attention-demanding tasks that require the subject to reflect on their own psychological state or those of others (Denny et al., 2012).
- Posterior hub including the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), adjacent precuneus and angular gyrus, are thought to support the recollection of past experiences, including autobiographical information and previously studied items.
This process is mediated by functional coupling with the medial temporal lobe and hippocampus, which are known to be sensitive to the temporary accumulation of daily experiences and are recruited in the memory-based construction of future scenarios (Andrews-Hanna et al., 2010; Shannon et al., 2013).
How is the Default Mode Network Connected to Mental Processes and Suffering?
The default mode network is about self-focus and mental time travel, and its inactivity appears to be related to varied forms of mental illness. The DMN is involved in episodic memory processing, with introspection and autobiographic memory as important cognitive processes.
The default mode network is more connected in the brains of lonely people. There is more activity in the DMN in the brains of lonely people. These people often spend a lot of time thinking about what happened in the past and what will happen in the future, all with feelings of worry, anxiety, and dread.
Humans spend nearly half of their time engaged in thoughts related to their plans, everyday concerns, and experiences. “Daydreaming” or “mind-wandering,” has been shown to utilize areas in the DMN (Fox et al., 2015). Planning involves an increased engagement of the DMN around future-oriented thoughts.
The Default Mode Network is an integrative system for sustaining inner narratives. This means the way we think of ourselves, our expectations of ourselves, and our relationships of with aspects of our world are influenced by the DMN. It influences how we see ourselves in the world. These inner narratives can push us towards perfectionistic, timid, and polite tendencies.
DMN regions are activated in tasks requiring understanding and interacting with others, including interpretation of others’ mental states, inference of intentions and beliefs, and subjective evaluation of their behaviour. This means if you tend to think of others’ intentions in a certain way, that is through the lens you will see the world. It is also involved in reasoning about one-self in the context of social interactions with others.
The default mode network is involved in the pain experience and that chronic pain can reorganize “the dynamics of the DMN and as such reflect the maladaptive physiology of different types of chronic pain” (Baliki et al., 2008). Pain rumination in chronic pain patients can lead to strengthen the connectivity within the DMN (Kucyi et al., 2014). Strengthened connectivity between the DMN and insular cortex has a relationship to ongoing pain intensity and duration in individuals with chronic lower back pain (Loggia et al., 2013) and fibromyalgia (Napadow et al., 2012). Chronic pain sufferers can get caught in continuous loops at the cortical level which can turn into developing more persistent states of pain.
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive condition primarily associated with memory loss. The regions affected by AD also support DMN functionality, changes in DMN activity are thought to be seen in people affected by the disease.
Schizophrenia is a complex psychiatric disorder characterized by altered perception, delusions, cognitive deficits, and abnormal emotion regulation. There is an altered functional connectivity of the DMN with other brain areas in people with schizophrenia, that is associated with both positive and negative symptoms (Hu et al., 2017).
Clinical deficits in ADHD, including issues with attention and impulsivity, have been reported in association with delayed maturation of the DMN. Specifically, ADHD studies have consistently displayed increased functional connectivity within the DMN and across the whole brain.
One of the defining features of depression is brooding rumination, characterized by a passive and recurrent focus on depressed mood and its consequences (Treynor, Gonzalez, and Nolen-Hoeksema, 2003). The Default Mode Network seems to be critically involved in these ruminative processes.
How Can I Change My Default Mode Network?
Relaxation techniques, mindfulness, meditation, and even deep breathing can quiet the default mode network.
Meditators learn how to become aware of self-related thoughts, emotions, and body sensations, trying to separate the experience of these feelings from self-identifying with them. Reduced DMN activity has been found across different styles of meditation, including focused attention, mantra recitation, and loving-kindness. Furthermore, fluctuations in the activation of this network seem to correlate with the degree of focus during the practice.
Relaxation techniques, including mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises, can help reduce DMN activity, dampening the impact of self-reflective thoughts and resulting in increased present-moment awareness (Brewer et al., 2011).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other cognitive therapies can be used to retrain the brain, including the DMN through helping individuals regulate their thoughts and emotions.
EMDR therapy can have the therapeutic benefit of achieving normalization of default mode network dysfunction.
Doing aerobic exercise communicates to the DMN to calm down along with the additional benefits of less self-criticism and rumination after exercising in nature.
Hobbies and Novel Activities
Engaging in hobbies and novel activities can also induce a shift in thought processes, contributing to an increase in a person’s sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.
Finally, engaging in social interactions can help the person assume alternative points of view on problems and disengage from passive, ruminative problem-solving tendencies (Yeshurun, Nguyen, and Hasson, 2021).
The Default Mode Network can be a powerful influence on your mental state. However, you have the ability to change its influence from one that causes suffering to one that presents a calmer and more relaxed state.