The Default Mode

During the course of our daily lives the vast majority of us spend almost all of our time in what is called the Default Mode, activated by the Default Mode Network of the brain. It’s the DMN that gives us our very selves, constructed from memories of the past, observations during the present, and projections into the future.

This way of existing  is so utterly familiar that we don’t even notice it unless we are forced to pay attention—if, for example, we are overwhelmed by ruminating on something embarrassing we did, or on someone’s slighting us. Even then we have no idea what we’re doing or why, and are helpless to stop it. And so we thrash around with various attempts at an explanation (“I’m so stupid! Why did I do that?!” “That person is such a jerk! I hate her!”).  These thoughts may be painful, but they appear to point to a solution. If I’m stupid, maybe I can figure out a way to wise up, or if I can identify another person as a hateful jerk, maybe I can undermine them in some way.

We need the Default Mode Network to get through the day. It’s what keeps us on track, helps us know what to do next, and makes it possible for us to learn from our mistakes.  Alzheimer’s patients are progressively hampered in their functioning by the erosion of the DMN. Unfortunately, the DMN can drive us crazy when it is overstimulated. People suffering from depression have an overactive DMN. The symboliste poet Charles Baudelaire describes this condition in Spleen II from the Fleurs du Mal: “J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais milles ans”—

I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.

A heavy chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets,
Processes, love-letters, verses, ballads,
And heavy locks of hair enveloped in receipts,
Hides fewer secrets than my gloomy brain.
It is a pyramid, a vast burial vault
Which contains more corpses than potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon,
In which long worms crawl like remorse
And constantly harass my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir full of withered roses,
Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses,
Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers,
Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

Even without running amok, the DMN is behind what causes ordinary dukkha, dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I’ll give an example from this morning when I took the dog out for his first walk of the day. Just as I stepped out the door I was immediately struck by the warm, humid air and the breezes. “It feels like swimming,” I thought, as the dog urged me forward from the driveway to the sidewalk. There was something delicious about the breezes, about the way they caressed my neck and entire body, as well as the smells of vegetation and the sounds of the morning. I saw the leaves of the trees rustling gently in a delicate dance.

Meanwhile, my dog was sniffing along the walkway for information about what other dogs might have passed the house and when, adding his scent at strategic points. My mind began to wander, thinking about the day ahead, wondering what I would try to do with my time, and evaluating my level of physical energy. I stopped being aware of what was going on around me as I became absorbed by pictures in my head. I saw myself doing laundry, doing dishes, sitting in meditation. Imaginary conversations popped up.

Later, as I was digging up a few weeds, I began talking to some image of a younger person—maybe my childhood self?—about the kinds of weeds I was seeing. “That big sprawling grass is actually pretty easy to yank out, but the taproot thistles are the worst! And those smaller grasses have networks of roots, and if you break them off and leave a piece, they just come right back.” Maybe I wanted to share my knowledge with someone. I used to be a teacher, and had a young child once who is now 17 and doesn’t listen to anything I say. Who knows.

We live with stories about ourselves, some of them helpful, others not so much. Some are paralyzing. At different times in our lives, different stories capture our interest. Sometimes we go to therapy, where we can learn to identify disabling stories and substitute positive ones. When stories become dominant over a culture or subculture they can harden into ideologies or belief systems. The work of historians is to make sense out of data and turn it into a narrative, an explanation, an account.

These activities are our defense against chaos, but underlying the stories about who we are is a noise machine in the brain that we scarcely notice, spouting random thoughts and images without letup. I sometimes play a game of trying to trace back a chain of thought to its origin. The mind leapfrogs from one idea to another, based on associations, puns, or resemblances, beginning its journey with an input, something we see or hear that strikes our notice, and ending far, far, away. In the meantime the leaves are shimmering with a light breeze, and the body is alive with a play of sensations, and we aware of none of it.

In the Default Mode we sleepwalk through our life, dreaming our dreams while life goes on in and around us. The consequences of not paying attention can be tragic and deadly. The work of spiritual practice is to open our minds to awareness, to move us in the direction of waking up from our enchanted sleep.

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