Default Mode Network (The Thinking We Do When We're Not Thinking)

impulse control metacognition stay focused

[Reading time: 2 minutes 20 seconds]

The brain skill of Sustained Attention is all about focus.

Directed focus on one task makes the brain work hard. This one-pointed attention engages the prefrontal cortex - as well as the hippocampus, billions of neurons, and who knows how many neurotransmitters. It takes a huge amount of energy.

The brain is also hard at work during activities when we aren't consciously focused on anything. It is during these daydreaming times that our resting brain function becomes active. Neuroscientists call this active function our Default Mode Network (DMN).

The Default Mode Network is "creative incubation" time when the brain knits together concepts, memories and experiences on a subconscious level. Think of the great "Aha!" moments you've had when taking a walk or doing something mundane like vacuuming.

As a web developer, I could spend hours troubleshooting problematic code only to discover that five minutes into a walk, a novel, near-perfect solution would pop into my mind. And I come up with the best advice for my kids when I'm weeding...

Default Mode Network coming soonDavid Allen says, "Your best thinking about work doesn't happen when you are at work."  I believe this is because sometimes complex problems are too big for the conscious mind to process. When the brain gets downtime, deeper knowledge has the space to come forward.

The brain has its own filtering system

Neurons in the brain are packed with years of learning and understanding. Networks of new ideas/concepts build on networks of old ideas/concepts - and the degree to which those networks are related to whatever problem is on your mind will vary.

Default Mode Network intense thinkingOne of the remarkable functions of the brain is its ability to tune out any information that it thinks isn't relevant - or might not be relevant. Neuroscientists call this "cognitive inhibition". Intense thinking about a problem can trigger this function.

Mark Beeman Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University says,

'It’s a bit like trying to look at a dim star. You have to turn your head and spy it out of the corner of your eye; if you look at it directly, it disappears.’ In lab experiments, subjects who are given a brainteaser and sleep on the problem or otherwise back away from it are usually more likely to solve it than if they just keep pounding away.

Turns out, one of the best ways to solve an elusive problem is to stop forcing the brain to a solution.

What counts as brain downtime?

Downtime is not the same as "unwinding" time. Visiting with friends, playing a video game, scrolling through social media, watching TV - these are all great ways to spend free time. But truly speaking, they aren't really downtime.

Dr. Scott Bea, psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic says all those activities "...require processing information — and part of the reason we need more downtime is that we’re doing way too much processing already.”

Downtime is where the Default Mode Network is active but the conscious mind gets a break.

Is it hard to sit around and do nothing? You're not alone

For anyone who is overscheduled, it can be incredibly difficult to just sit and stare into space.

It sure is for me. But I find that I feel less overwhelmed and more creative when I let my mind wander. Maybe this is why I like to go hiking!

In 2014, a number of studies revealed that people typically do not like to spend time in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.

In fact, when they were given the option of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts - or giving themselves an electric shock, this is what the data revealed:

  • 67% of men chose the shocks.
  • 25% of women chose the shocks.

All this brain work takes energy

When food is consumed, it gets broken down in the digestive system, converted into glucose, and then used as fuel by the brain. This is the primary source of its energy. Neuroscientists report that 20% of all calories consumed are used by the brain.

Q: Which uses more energy: the Default Mode Network or conscious thinking?
A: The Default Mode Network

Give your brain an extra boost

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein found in the hippocampus and cortex. It helps the brain develop new connections, repair failing brain cells, and protect healthy ones. Keeping adequate levels of BDNF helps the brain to learn and engage in higher thinking as well as support it's long term memory function.

Default Mode Network - exercise makes a differenceQuick ways to increase a little BDNF include getting deep sleep, spending time in the sun, and meditation.

But the real home run in raising BDNF in the brain is exercise.

Regular exercise increases blood flow throughout the body which in turn increases the synthesis of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor about threefold. Woohoo!

Brain derived neurotrophic factor

The moral of the story is that when you're exhausting yourself trying to solve a difficult puzzle, give your brain a break, get a snack and step away from the intense focus. You might be quite pleasantly surprised by what your brain comes up with.

Default Mode Network - give your brain a break



10 Executive Function Skills Drive What You Do
(and how you do it)

Take the Quiz and find out how your brain works.

Take the Quiz


Stay Connected

Join our mailing list to receive new blog posts.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.