min to read
October 23, 2019

A Default State of the Mind

Conor B. Murphy

Conor B. Murphy

Conor lives at the intersection of data science and optimal psychology, using data and technology to understand and reinforce the best parts of human experience. He transitioned to the tech sector after spending four years leveraging data for more impactful humanitarian interventions in developing countries. Since then. he has held a variety of positions including a faculty role for University of New Haven and Galvanize's Master of Science in Data Science program, principal data scientist and consultant for a number of startups and a data scientist and educator for Artificial Intelligence at Databricks. Outside of data, Conor is an avid skydiver, getting into the sport after reading Kotler's The Rise of Superman.

One of the most telling questions to ask researchers is to name the paper or book or idea that was most personally influential for them. The first response I get is normally an academic one that sites this or that foundational finding in their field.

Typically, though, the interesting conversations lie no less than a few, unexpected volleys in. So I rephrase the question with an emphasis on the “personally” of personally influential. Then once past the polished, professional responses, you enter into the realm of curiosity. You get to that moment when an idea first took hold. You can then trace that idea through its many permutations and false starts and iterations.

There’s a small, now mostly forgotten 2014 study that, to this day, still influences the way I view the world. The motivating question of the study has to do with the natural state of the mind. In order to answer this question, researchers left a group of participants alone in an empty room. The only stimulation available to them was the ability to give themselves an electric shock.

The finding? People would rather shock themselves than be alone with their own thoughts. There was a significant difference between men and women in this study—likely due to the fact that men tend to be more sensation seeking—but both groups had adverse reactions to the absence of stimulation. What really sold me on this study was the one outlier who, in a 15 minute window, shocked himself 190 times. That’s about once every 5 seconds.

Now, the motivating question of the natural state of the mind is inherently flawed. It implies that we could never exist without a history or a context. But it’s still an insightful one. Maybe a better question is: why don’t we like to be alone with ourselves? Or: where do our minds go if we’re not actively building towards something?

The study controlled for meditation, finding that meditators are more likely to have enjoyable experiences devoid of stimulation. That insight is what convinced me to take up meditation, a habit I’ve been enjoying for over half a decade since the paper was first published.

The so-called natural state of the brain is what researchers refer to as the default mode network. It takes its name from being the default activity of the brain when it’s not focusing on any one thing. This network involves a variety of different structures located throughout the brain.

The current thinking is that the default mode network acts in opposition to the executive attention network responsible for goal direction and task-oriented activities. Network activity here focuses attention and therefore depletes working memory. It’s the yin to the default mode network’s yang.

The other network to keep an eye on is the salience network which is thought to operate like a switch between the default mode and executive attention network. It’s what pulls you from day dreaming when you catch the silhouette of a threat out of your peripheral vision, whether that threat is an assassin or a meddling boss.

So when the study participants were left in an unadorned room alone with their thoughts, their default mode networks activated leading to introspection. And it was painful. They generally rated the experience as unenjoyable and, of course, many of them turned themselves into Frankenstein’s monster.

Other studies confirm that activity in the default mode network is correlated to depressive rumination. It’s the feedback loop of getting trapped in recurrent, self-reflective, and unshakable focus on whatever you find to be depressing. It’s no good.

But that’s only one function of the default mode. It’s also the bedrock of creativity and improvisation. That was the finding of an fMRI study looking at jazz musicians in flow. They were using the default mode in order to improvise.

So now we can see the dual nature of the default mode. Since activity in this network is so crucial for creativity, neuroscientist Scott Barry Kaufman refers to the default mode as “the imagination network.”

Every cognitive high performer I know gets caught in rumination. Every. Last. One.

But the default mode is integral for performance. It’s what causes those ah-ha insights in the shower, after all. It allows us to turn down the goal directive-ness for a minute to roll with the punches. It gives the working memory some much-needed rest.

Yet even if we are ruminating, studies have found that task-oriented rumination leads to performance improvement. So focusing on negative stimuli has its place in our process of self-overcoming.

The key to making the default mode network work for you has to do with understanding that dual nature. In pharmaceuticals there exists the idea of a minimum effective dose: the least amount of medicine you can give to a patient so that they experience the desired effect.

So too might there exist something like a minimum effective amount of rumination before we’ve gotten the benefits and have to pull the plug on the whole ordeal by taking a walk, making a decision, or re-deploying the goal direction of the attention network.

It’s in awareness of this default state of mind that we can best leverage it: using its power and minimizing the self-flagellation.

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