Benefits of Doing Nothing: The Default Mode Network

Quicksilver Scientific Education Team

April 20, 2024

Beneath the surface of our daily actions lies a stream of spontaneous thoughts, memories, and emotions. Often, we need to ignore these spontaneous pieces of information to focus on the task at hand, such as our work, safely driving our car, or preparing a meal. However, a growing body of research shows that allowing ourselves to occasionally be carried by this stream is actually good for us! The stream, your brain’s default mode network (DMN), may be essential for accessing creativity and cultivating mental health.

Read on to learn what the DMN is, when it is active, and the mental and emotional well-being benefits of regularly switching on your DMN!

What is the Default Mode Network?
The DMN is an enigmatic system of interconnected brain regions that is more active during passive activity than tasks involving externally focused attention.

Our “go-go” culture highly values externally focused tasks and accomplishments; and while there is nothing wrong with being focused and goal-oriented, constantly being in this state of mind is draining and may cause you to miss out on the many benefits that “mental downtime” can offer.

Your DMN lights up when you take a moment to pause, turn inward, daydream, and simply let your mind wander. Fascinatingly, the electrical signals given off by the DMN used to be considered “background noise” in neuroscience research. However, healthy DMN brain activity is now recognized to be crucial for creativity and mental and emotional well-being.

The daydreaming and mind wandering that activate the DMN differ from meditation, likely because meditation involves cultivating inward focus rather than allowing the mind to wander. Think of meditation and the DMN as “yin” and “yang.” Each brain state has its benefits and limitations; and the goal is to find that personal balance between the two. Research shows that meditation decreases mind-wandering. While there is certainly a time and place for meditation, if your goal is to let your mind wander freely, meditation may be counterproductive.

Research shows that the potential benefits of engaging the DMN through daydreaming and mind wandering include:

  • Increases self-awareness
  • Enables you to consolidate what you’ve learned from prior events and experiences
  • Helps you cultivate compassion for others
  • May support creativity; highly creative people tend to have greater functional connectivity in the DMN.

 

Interestingly, some research suggests that listening to enjoyable music can up-level your daydreaming or mind-wandering experience.

DMN Hyperactivation: Too Much of a Good Thing?
It is important to note that DMN activity isn’t 100% positive all of the time. Studies show that DMN hyperactivation is linked to increased rumination in people with a tendency towards a low mood. Rumination is defined as engaging in repetitive negative thought processes that continuously loop in the mind. Rumination thinking has been shown to take a significant toll on an individual’s mental well-being.

So, how can you experience the benefits of the DMN without the downsides? As earlier mentioned, meditation may be a valuable tool for reducing DMN activity when the DMN is hyperactivated or otherwise dysfunctional, such as in the case of rumination.

There are many resources and tools for getting started with meditation. A few apps worth checking out include Insight Timer, Calm, and Headspace.

Practical Strategies for Engaging Your Default Mode Network
For those of us who need tips on how to engage the DMN, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Make some time to do nothing every day. This could involve taking a break from your work every couple of hours to “unfocus” your brain and give it a chance to rest or taking a few minutes while in the grocery store’s checkout line to simply daydream rather than scrolling on your phone.
  • Try combining aerobic exercise with your mind-wandering time. Aerobic exercise, such as running or hiking, allows your mind to wander and may also increase functional activity in the DMN. While some people can effectively let their minds wander while exercising and listening to music, others feel more at rest when they engage in aerobic exercise in silence, without listening to music or any other audio sources.
  • Set aside your digital devices. During your “unfocus” DMN time, try your best to set aside your digital devices, as the constant distractions offered by your device may prevent you from effectively entering mind-wandering mode.
  • Let go of your fear of doing nothing! Yes, this is easier said than done in our society, where many people pride themselves on constant busyness. However, releasing the fear of doing nothing is essential for switching on the DMN.

 

The Bottom Line on the Default Mode Network

In a world where everyone is measured by their productivity and accomplishments, slowing down to let your mind wander can feel scary. However, when you take a moment to pause and be carried by your stream-of-conscious thoughts and daydreams, you support your wellbeing.

Activating your DMN doesn’t have to take much time; you can start by giving yourself permission to daydream within the “gaps” in your day (such as in the checkout line) when you would typically reach for your phone or when you’re running or hiking.

We hope this blog leaves you with a newfound appreciation for the beautiful DMN, and the curiosity to engage your DMN more often by letting your mind rest, daydream, and wander!

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Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y.-Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences108(50), 20254–20259. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112029108

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Hamilton, J. P., Farmer, M., Fogelman, P., & Gotlib, I. H. (2015). Depressive rumination, the Default-Mode Network, and the dark matter of clinical neuroscience. Biological Psychiatry78(4), 224–230. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.02.020

Kaufman, S. B. (n.d.). Mind Wandering: A New Personal Intelligence Perspective. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/mind-wandering-a-new-personal-intelligence-perspective/

Li, M., Huang, M., Li, S., Tao, J., Zheng, G., & Chen, L. (2016). The effects of aerobic exercise on the structure and function of DMN-related brain regions: a systematic review. International Journal of Neuroscience127(7), 634–649. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207454.2016.1212855

Reybrouck, M., Vuust, P., & Brattico, E. (2018). Brain connectivity networks and the aesthetic experience of music. Brain Sciences8(6), 107. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci8060107

Shofty, B., Gonen, T., Bergmann, E., Mayseless, N., Korn, A., Shamay-Tsoory, S., Grossman, R., Jalon, I., Kahn, I., & Ram, Z. (2022). The default network is causally linked to creative thinking. Molecular Psychiatry27(3), 1848–1854. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-021-01403-8

Zhang, J., Raya, J., Morfini, F., Urban, Z., Pagliaccio, D., Yendiki, A., Auerbach, R. P., Bauer, C. C. C., & Whitfield-Gabrieli, S. (2023). Reducing default mode network connectivity with mindfulness-based fMRI neurofeedback: a pilot study among adolescents with affective disorder history. Molecular Psychiatryhttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41380-023-02032-z

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