MINDRAMP PODCAST - FLOURISH AS YOU AGE

FLOURISH - Managing Our Monkey Minds

May 17, 2024 Michael C. Patterson Season 4 Episode 37
FLOURISH - Managing Our Monkey Minds
MINDRAMP PODCAST - FLOURISH AS YOU AGE
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MINDRAMP PODCAST - FLOURISH AS YOU AGE
FLOURISH - Managing Our Monkey Minds
May 17, 2024 Season 4 Episode 37
Michael C. Patterson

To improve our happiness we need to quiet the incessant internal chatter of self-criticism, self-sabotage, self-blame,  self-pity, self-aggrandizement,  and the other  forms of neurotic self-absorption that plague us.  To flourish we need to quiet our "monkey mind."

There is good evidence that these neurotic manifestations of "Self" arise from a specific region of the brain called The Default Mode Network (DMN). In this episode I discuss how we might quiet our monkey minds by  inhibiting or deactivating the DMN.  I also suggest that there are times when the DMN can be quite helpful so we also need to know when to activate it or to simply get our of its way. 

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To improve our happiness we need to quiet the incessant internal chatter of self-criticism, self-sabotage, self-blame,  self-pity, self-aggrandizement,  and the other  forms of neurotic self-absorption that plague us.  To flourish we need to quiet our "monkey mind."

There is good evidence that these neurotic manifestations of "Self" arise from a specific region of the brain called The Default Mode Network (DMN). In this episode I discuss how we might quiet our monkey minds by  inhibiting or deactivating the DMN.  I also suggest that there are times when the DMN can be quite helpful so we also need to know when to activate it or to simply get our of its way. 

Support the Show.

Support our work to promote creative aging. Subscribe to the MINDRAMP Podcast.

MANAGE YOUR MONKEY MIND: Taming Your Default Mode Network. 


Hi. Welcome to the Flourish as You Age podcast. We are exploring ways to use our minds effectively to promote happiness and to flourish as we age. This episode is part two of our discussion about the DMN. In the previous episode we explained that the DMN is activated whenever we stop focusing on a specific task. When we are fully engage in an activity or in a state of flow, the DMN is silent. But when we get distracted and our mind starts to wander - when we start day-dreaming - well, the DMN comes to life and starts flooding our mind with streams of random thoughts, images and scenarios that generally make us feel bad about ourselves. 

I’m trying to make the case that we can avoid a lot of neurotic thoughts and feelings if we can get our DMN - our monkey mind - to just shut up. In this episode I want to offer some practical advice on how to manage our DMN.  We need to learn how to shut it down when it is being troublesome and activate when it can be helpful. 


Let’s address deactivation first. How can we silence the DMN when it is causing us to suffer and making it harder to achieve flow and flourishing? 

Actually before we get to deactivation, let’s talk about how we might prevent the DMN from coming online in the first place. Research shows that the DMN is quiet when we engage in task-related activities. So, to prevent slipping into the rumination and self-absorption of the DMN, we need to remain engaged in specific tasks, like solving problems, playing sports or doing anything that gets us into a flow state. 

Even simple daily activities like doing the dishes can prevent activation of the DMN if we do them mindfully. This is one of the great benefits of mindfulness practice. If we can be fully engaged in the present moment, enjoying - even savoring - whatever it is that we are doing we can prevent our mind from wandering off into the crazy world of the DMN. 

So, we can take the same basic approach to deactivating the DMN. The first step is to recognize when the DMN has taken control of our mind. It’s a sneaky system. We think we are focused on something, like reading a book, but then we realize that we have no idea what we just read. Our mind was kidnapped by our DMN and we got sucked into this strange, dreamlike state in which our mind wanders into and out of seemingly disconnected scenarios about who knows what. 

We need to recognize when we are distracted and then learn how to extract ourselves for its seductive grasp. We need to learn how to jump off the train of thoughts the DMN will spool out - seemingly forever. 


Certain types of mindfulness meditation seems to be designed specifically to identify when the DMN is activated and to learn how to let it fade into silence. While meditating, for example, we are often told to focus on our breathing and stay alert to when this focus is interrupted by a random thought or image. These interruptions are the DMN trying to insinuate itself into our conscious awareness. With meditation we learn not to get annoyed with the distraction but to simply accept that the DMN is doing what it does - what it evolved to do - and decide to ignore it. 

The psychologist Steven Hayes recommends naming the voices in your head. I call my voices, my DMN, Marcello. When I realize that Marcello is interrupting my meditation with a random thought I simply say “Ah. Marcello. There you are. Thank you for these somewhat random ideas you are offering. I know you are trying to helpful and make sense of things, but I’m busy with other things at the moment. Please sit in the corner and be quiet.”  In this way, we can just  recognize when a thought intrudes and learn not to get caught up in it. We just let it go. We pay it no mind and let it fade into oblivion.

 Mindfulness practice encourages us to give full attention to the present moment. To savor our present awareness. The DMN  almost always pulls us out of the present.  It transports us into memories of a past the can no longer be changed or projects us into an imaginary future. When we practice mindfulness and meditation, we learn specific mental skills designed to inhibit the DMN.  

It’s interesting to note that mindfulness is a task-positive activity. Remember that the DMN is deactivated when we concentrate on a specific task. The task of mindfulness is to give our full, engaged attention, to what is happening in the present moment. We are mentally alert and focused on what is appearing in our present awareness. When we lose that task orientation - that focus and engagement - we get distracted and our mind begins wandering. 

Okay, so those are some ways to prevent the DMN from being activated, or to deactivate it when it has kidnapped our attention. 


Now, is it always a good idea to deactivate the DMN? Are there times when the DMN is useful? 

Yes. The DMN plays a very important role. 

 It is the brain network that keeps track of how our body interacts with the environment. It’ job is to monitor the homeostatic balance of our body systems and to make sure that we are in a balanced relationship with our environment. To do this, the DMN establishes a baseline of expectations about what is normal and expected. Given the environment we are in, given the current circumstances, what should we expect to happen? And, given these circumstances, what should our body be doing? Once this baseline is established, the DMN can work with other brain systems to identify anomalies, to be alerted to anything that goes against the established expectations. 

So, take a simple example. We are just sitting under a tree, mindlessly watching the clouds roll by. Suddenly we hear an unexpected rustling in the bushes to our right. We automatically focus our attention on the bushes to try to determine what made the rustling sound. Is a wild boar about to charge? Our heart rate increases; blood flow increases. The clouds are forgotten. When we see a squirrel emerge from the bushes we  can ease our vigilant attention and go back to day-dreaming about the clouds. 

The DMN helps the brain make predictions about what should happen under these particular circumstances. If things go as expected, no problem. the DMN continues to day-dream. If something unexpected happens, however, alarms go off and our attention becomes highly focused on the potential danger.  So this baseline function - this default mode - is quite useful - in fact, essential to our wellbeing. It’s part of our prediction and alarm system that helps us to survive. 


As usual, I find the hemisphere hypothesis useful in exploring the often paradoxical nature of the way our brain and mind work. The DMN is both helpful and harmful. The prediction function is essential to our survival, but the production of monkey-mind thoughts and ideas is problematic. As with other aspects of the mind the DMN probably has two modes of operation, one consistent with the experiential mind and the other with the conceptual mind.  

The experiential mode of the DMN is the part that monitors what is going on. No problem. We need that information. And the DMN will take care of that stuff on its own. We don’t have to give it any conscious thought or attention. In fact, it works better without conscious attention. It is a function of our unconscious mind, or sub-conscious mind.

It is the conceptual aspect of the DMN, however, that turns the flow of sensory experience into fixed concepts and ideas and produces the endless narrative about me-me-me. So we need to be alert to the times when our mind is filled with words, ideas and concepts that have nothing to do with a specific task we are working on. We need to be alert to the times when our mind leaves the present moment and wanders into the past or projects into the future.  That’s when the monkey-mind starts taking over and we need to take action to silence its chatter. 

There is one time, however, when this production of random thoughts and ideas is quite valuable. It is useful, in fact essential, when we need to think creatively. 

Let me take a step back and talk a bit more about the multiple aspects of the DMN. As mentioned earlier, I think the DMN can operate out of the sensory mind or the conceptual mind. I also think it is useful to conceive of the DMN as having a task-positive aspect as well as the task-negative aspect we have been talking about. 

Mind-wandering and day-dreaming, for example, are unstructured thoughts and feelings generated by the DMN. They arise for no specific purpose other than the mind’s ongoing project of trying to make sense of our mysterious reality. In that sense they are task-negative. They are associated with no particular task and they perform no useful task. 

On the other hand, the DMN can be encouraged to generate thoughts, ideas and concepts that are related to a specific problem or challenge. We can direct the DMN to engage in mental exercises around a defined topic. We can ask the DMN to generate as many random thoughts and ideas as it can around a given topic. We want to engage DMN when we need to think outside the box, when we want to escape the standard thinking routines that usually restrict our creativity. 

We do this by priming the DMN with a specific challenge. I might say, “Marcello. Listen up. Here’s a question for you to ponder. Why does the DMN usually focus on our faults and shortcomings and not on our strengths. Think about it from an evolutionary point of view.” 

At this point I have two options. I can sit there and let my mind wander where it will and see if my DMN comes up with anything useful. Or, I can do something else and let my DMN work on its own, unconsciously. When the DMN thinks it has something useful to share, it will pop it into my conscious awareness. This is how the famous Aha! Moment arises. You prime the mind with a problem, go do something else so that the DMN can incubate the idea, and then wait for the Eureka moment to strike. It doesn’t always work, but the literature on the creative process is full of examples of breakthrough ideas that occurred as though by magic, out of the blue. 

So, again, the activation process is to prime the DMN with a particular task - a creative challenge - and then to relax and let it do its thing. This is called the incubation stage of the creative cycle. This is why ideas often come to us while taking a shower or while going for a walk. We have given the DMN a specific task to focus its  meanderings and then have given it room and time to wander around the remote nooks and crannies of our imagination. When the DMN thinks it has a solution it presents it to our conscious awareness. Eureka. We have an Aha! Moment. 


To sum up. Our DMN can be quite useful when it quietly goes about its job of monitoring our interactions with the environment. It can be very useful when we prime it with a cognitive challenge and take advantage of its ability to wander through remote connections with other brain areas to come up with creative ideas.  The DMN can be useful when we activate its task-positive aspects and keep it focus on a specific problem we want to solve

The DMN becomes a problem it is operating in its task-negative mode and being vocal about it. We become confused and conflicted when we pay attention to its rambling generation of random thoughts and concepts. We get into trouble when we think this unstructured rehashing of past memories and anxious forecasts of dreaded things to come should be taken seriously. “No Marcello. It is not useful for you to voice every random idea that comes into your mind. Keep it to yourself. Keep it hidden in my subconscious mind. Vocalizing your stream of consciousness just ends up sounding like the noisy chatter of unruly monkeys. Do your thing, but be quiet about it.”


Okay. Thanks for listening. I hope this discussion about the DMN was useful. Consider giving your DMN a name. Then when your new friend makes its presence know you can politely, but firmly, tell it that you are engage with other, more important tasks and you would appreciate their silence. 

“Ciao Marcello.”

Until next time. Be well. Savor what you have. This is it. There ain’t nothin else.

Introduction - Managing our Default Mode Network (DMN)
Deactivating the Default Mode Network - Quieting Our Monkey Minds
Mindful Meditation & the DMN
When to Activate the DMN - Creativity
The DMN & The Hemisphere Hypothesis
Summary
Conclusion