A Deep Dive into your Mind
What is happening in your mind when you are doing nothing?
Have you ever wondered what is your brain doing when you think is doing nothing? Have you ever wondered what is going on when you switch your focus in the middle of an activity?
Studies are showing that many people are experiencing an epidemic of overwhelming either in their work or study. It is strongly believed that there are two factors heavily contributing to this stage of overwhelming:
A) Firstly, due to the amount of information we have to process daily, it is getting harder to concentrate, as our brains are not used to such a big amount of information intake.
Did you know that the human brain is loaded with around 34GB of information every day? That can be the equivalent of roughly 105k words in 12 hours or 23 words/second.
B)Secondly, we are dealing with so many new technologies that there is absolutely not enough time for our brains to adapt to them.
Did you know that due to COVID19 pandemic, many companies have accelerated the adoption of digital technologies by several years? These changes are making us feel more pressured by the massive presence of technology in our lives and it can make us more stressed and distracted.
So what exactly is happening when you get distracted while you are engaged in a task?
While being distracted, our brain takes a break and starts to examine the environment to see if there is anything more important outside of the main focus of attention. If there is not, it will refocus on what you were doing before.
Neuroscientists are saying that our brains have two different streams of attention:
- one set of attention is for imaginary things, also called “default attention”, and links to the past and future;
- another set of attention is for real things and links to the present;
Most of the time we are flipping back and forth between these two ways of attention. Let’s say for example that you are engaged in a conversation and suddenly you are tuning into your own thoughts and then you have to get back into the present moment and refocus on the conversation. Or, you are writing your final paper, going through many articles, and having a lot of ideas in your head. Instead of writing them down, you switch your attention to what you would like to have for dinner, and then you are getting back to your task and continue your work.
Have you ever thought that when you sleep or stare at the walls your brain is resting?
In a book called “Social”, it is mentioned that this is not true. The author of the book, Matthew Lieberman explains what happens when we don’t keep our brain busy — a network that neuroscientists have named it the Default Mode Network is activating.
The default mode network (DMN) is a network of interconnected brain regions that is active when a person is not focused on the outside world and can be measured using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technique. This brain function was originally described by Shulman et al. in 1997 and followed by Raichle et al. in 2001, who found that certain brain regions had increased metabolic activity during rest and decreased activity when involved in a defined task.
Some researchers are saying that this is an active network since we were born while others say that this network is activating at about 4–5 years. In any case, this network is active since we are quite young and it operates in four axes: past, future, self-referential thinking, and thinking about others:
A) Self-referential thinking. Among the four axes, the default mode network is constantly commenting on almost every action of ours and that is associated with our inner dialogue.
B) Thinking about the others. Also called the theory of mind, through the default mode network our brain is thinking about other's thoughts as well as being able to understand and empathise with others and make social assessments or reflect on key social traits.
C) Mental time travel — future vs past. This is the function which enables us to reminisce about events that occurred in the past, making predictions about what will happen in the future, having episodic memory and understanding and recalling a story.
If you will make a quick exercise you will realise that when you are having a break from what you are doing, your mind tends to flee from the present to something that has not yet happened or to anticipate something in the future, to remember certain things or to worry or analyse what happened.
The scientists are saying that all the default mode network functions are reinforcing our ego and we tend to feel stronger about ourselves or who we are. This might be due to all the moments when we think about ourselves in different social contexts such as what happened today at the office or what is going to happen tonight.
According to some studies done on the brain under MRI, while monitoring brain activity, it has been noticed that when the group of people finished thinking about their task, the default mode network instantly began to activate with the regions involved in this wider network. Basically, instead of resting, defragmenting, organising memory, or doing other things, our brain begins to anticipate problems/solutions.
While this is a good thing in the sense of anticipating threats it can also be problematic when you have no problems and the default mode network starts creating them for you because it evolved in a period when you had many more physical threats.
A number of different ideas about the Default Mode Network were presented by Matthew Lieberman in his book. One of the most intriguing fact was that, the default activity is the trigger through which we become more social and therefore can influence our relationships with others.
As several authors conclude, its most important function is to help us to anticipate problems either by recalling the past or by making scenarios about the future, particularly with an emphasis on social or relational problems or threats. This can lead to better problem-solving skills in the relationship with the people around us.
I hope you enjoyed this topic which I have found very interesting in the process of personal development.
Remember that knowledge is power and if you know how your brain works it can considerably improve your life.