What is the Default Mode Network?
The Default Mode Network is a large network of correlated brain regions which are activated when we are not focused on a particular task where we need focused attention. We can also refer to this part of the mind as the ‘Monkey Mind’.
It is called the ‘Default’ mode because this is what the mind defaults to when it is not engaged or focused on any specific task. This is when we are up in our heads using our imagination, recalling memories, thinking of the intention of others, and daydreaming as well as thinking about the past, the future, our worries, understanding others, or self-reflection. These are all the things we do when we are just ‘thinking’ without any specific goal in mind.
Recent research has begun to detect links between over activity in the DFN with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. It is important to note however that the DFN is not always negative! We need our minds to wander to access our creativity and imagination. We also need it plan activities and contemplate future activities based on our past experiences. We also want to remember all those important and meaningful memories of our life. The difference here is noticing where our minds are going and be mindful of our thoughts. We can be ‘mindless’ – thinking about things but not realising we are, or be ‘Mindful’ our thoughts, knowing with awareness what our thoughts are.
We also don’t have to always be in the present – firstly this is probably impossible and secondly, we can have a rich creative thinking life, thinking about a whole range of possibilities and ideas. There may be a misunderstanding around Mindfulness, that thinking about things that are not in the present is not helpful. This is not true; however it is important to keep in mind that when our minds do wander, research shows that 87% of the time it elicits a negative emotion as our minds love to worry and connect to anything that could be harmful to protect ourselves.
‘An overactive DMN is highly correlated with negative mood states and certain mental illnesses. The DMN can be simplistically conceptualized as a ruminative network. It directs our awareness to the past and future while largely ignoring the present. And while the DMN can be used responsibly to plan and organize, we must always be wary of its runaway force.’ Matthew Williams 2015, Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Default Mode Network, Meditation, & Mindfulness
What is the Task Positive Network?
The Task Positive Network is a large network of correlated brain regions we use when performing attention demanding tasks or successfully focusing our attention on a specific action. While we are being Mindful or focusing on a task without our minds wandering, we are activating our TPN and therefore reducing activity in the DMN which means our anxious thinking is greatly diminished.
So, a great way to reduce anxious thinking is to activate our TPN! We can intentionally bring our attention to tasks where we require sustained focus. We can also activate it during Meditation. We may sit down to start a mindfulness practice, noticing our minds wandering having our DMN activated, but as we direct our attention to the now through the senses, we activate our TPN.
When we practice Mindfulness and keep on bringing ourselves back to the present moment, we can limit the activation of the DFN. The DFN isn’t necessarily bad and the TPN good, it is a matter of using our DFN in a helpful way and engaging our TPN more so the two live in a healthy balance. When do you find yourself using your TPN? How do you feel during and after?
Take a few moments reflect on when you notice yourself in the Default Mode or the Positive Task focused mode. What activities stimulate both the Default mode and the Positive Task network? How do you feel in each mode? Is there something you could do differently to have more experiences of the Positive Task Network?