The animated default network

Some days I think I must live in the golden age of teaching, because I am spoiled for choice in most of my demonstrations. Pop over to YouTube, enter a few search terms, and find an incredible assortment of possible videos to show, many of which have surprisingly high production values. My most recent find is an animated explanation of the default mode network I am about to use in a class discussion of consciousness:

Not only is it colorful and entertaining, it introduces two competing theories of what the default mode network is doing. One theory is “introspection and mind wandering”, the perspective I am most familiar with and leaned to in my first presentation of the default mode and discussion of how meditation changes it. This theory seems to mesh most cleanly with mindfulness and meditation, which have the goals of having the mind wander less and focus on the present more.

The other theory, though, presents a new (to me) perspective. Although it is awkwardly named as “baseline processing and information maintenance”, the key idea I took away from the animation was about consolidation. This is a critical process in how we form memories, and one of the vital functions of sleep: while we sleep our brains sweep away the little details of our day, and strengthen the memories that are going to be important (I recommend NPR’s program “The Secret World of Sleep” for more fascinating details). Consolidation is a critical process for learning from our experiences, because it allows us to find common threads in our experiences, generate insight to solve problems, and even strip away some of the emotional content of charged memories so we can gain a new perspective.

This puts an entirely new spin on the default mode. These periods of rest might go from just moments of lessened activity between tasks to a vital task in themselves, of processing events – in a slightly different way than when we are asleep, perhaps, allowing for a different kind of spin on what gets remembered or what insights are formed. At the very least, this suggests we should all put down our electronic devices and honey-do lists and allow ourselves to be bored, so our minds will wander. And perhaps even the meditators among us shouldn’t be too opposed to mind wandering, even when it means we’re lessening our awareness of the present moment; it might be helping us process our past experiences to have better future ones.




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