“I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.” – Steven Wright
We spend a tremendous amount of our time with our minds wandering and not on the task or the environment at hand. We daydream, plan for the future, review the past, ruminate on our failures, exalt in our successes. In fact we spend almost half of our waking hours off task with our mind wandering. You’d think that if we spend so much time doing this it must be enjoyable. But, in fact research has shown that when our mind is wandering we are actually unhappier than when we are paying attention to what is at hand.
A system of the brain known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) becomes active during wind wandering and relatively quiet during focused on task behavior. It is involved when we are engaged in internally focused tasks such as recalling deeply personal memories, daydreaming, sleeping, imagining the future and trying to take the perspective of others. The DMN involves neural structures including the medial prefrontal cortex, anterior and posterior cingulate cortices, precuneus, inferior parietal cortex, and lateral temporal cortex. These areas of the DMN are functionally connected, such that they are simultaneously active during mind wandering.
In today’s Research News article “The default mode network as a biomarker for monitoring the therapeutic effects of meditation”
Simon and colleagues review the literature on the DMN and note that its malfunction is associated with psychiatric disorders and returns to normal upon successful treatment of the disorders. The DMN activity is also affected by meditation which has also been shown to produces improvements in psychiatric disorders. So there would appear to be a common thread here; DMN activity.
They find that the DMN is abnormally active in a number of psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, successful treatments of these disorders are associated with a return to normal activity in the DMN. For example when a schizophrenic patient responds favorably to antipsychotic medication, DMN activity is normalized.
Meditation training is devoted to improving present moment awareness and decreasing mind wandering. As a result meditation training reduces the activity of the DMN. In addition, meditation has been shown to be beneficial for the treatment of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, addictions, alcoholism, and mild cognitive impairments.
As a result of these findings Simon and colleagues conclude that the state of the DMN may be an excellent indicator of the psychiatric health of the individual and it can also be an indicator of therapeutic improvement. In addition, it is a metric of the effectiveness of meditation for the treatment of disease. Hence, it is postulated that the DMN may be the common thread linking, psychiatric disorders, to therapeutic effectiveness, and to mindfulness training. If this is true it could lead to more effective diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses with meditation.
Needless to say the Default Mode Network (DMN) may be much more important than just the seat of mind wandering. It may be a crucial for mental health.
So, reset the default mode network with meditation and improve psychiatric health.
“Remember that breath walking – as with any meditation technique – should not be pursued with a grim determination to ‘get it right.’ The point is to cultivate openness, relaxation and awareness, which can include awareness of your undisciplined, wandering mind.” – Andrew Weil
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies