Ctrl Alt Delete: Presence & the brain's default mode network
What is actually meant by presence? Surely all of us are present all of the time by the very fact that we're here. But our attention is so divided, that often we're not; we're having a conversation with someone, but we're thinking about what's for dinner or we're on a walk or ride somewhere but are so preoccupied with thinking about our destination that we forget to enjoy the journey (woah, hello cheesy metaphor for life!) We're all guilty of this sometimes and I try to notice when I am - but it's not something to feel annoyed at ourselves for doing because a) we're human and not robots and b) it shows us where we need to practice being in the moment and in doing so, how to tame the brain's default mode network.
The default mode network is responsible for mind-wandering and it's called the default network because it's activated when we're not focused on a task. When we are not focused on the present moment and dwelling on the past or future, neuroimaging shows that the network is most active and this activity is linked with lower levels of happiness - and even unhappiness. And studies in the field of neuroscience have shown that we mind-wander 46.9% of the time. That's a heck of a lot of time to potentially be unhappy.
So how can we stop - or at least harness this - in a world where we are constantly having to plan and think ahead? Some of the key ways to reduce this default activity involve constantly making the choice - again and again - to become present and to find something to focus on in the moment.
I really believe we're only capable of overall positive change and presence when we adopt the mindset that everything has happened as it should and that everything is as it should be - otherwise, we're hamsters on a constant 'what-if' wheel. So how can we practice presence?
1) Accept the present moment. Even if it's not great, we can accept that it's not great and decide to change it and make something better of it
2) Take a walk just for the sake of it
3) We can focus on what we're doing and ask ourselves if it's making us happy or not and whether we can do things with more positivity and ease
The above shows we certainly don't need to practice meditation to reduce default activity and mind-wandering. If it's not your thing, don't worry about it! But if it is, I've written a separate post on the benefits of meditation in relation to neuroplasticity that you can read here and below, I've written about the types of meditation that are directly linked to the reduction of default activity and that activate other, more helpful regions of the brain.
The direct link between meditation and the default network is not just that it has shown to activate other regions of the brain but also that it effectively tells the default network to bugger off. As well as this, it changes your thinking pattern throughout your daily life, to curb distraction and mind-wandering. A study by Yale University measured cognitive activity using an fMRI scanner and took a look at the most effective meditations. These are:
1) The Loving-Kindness Meditation - also known as Metta meditation, this involves setting some positive intentions for yourself, hoping for the same positive things for others and cultivating a sense of compassion. There is a great article on this on the Calm website here
2) The Breathing Meditation - this just involves thinking only about breathing in and out.
3) The 'Noticing Thoughts' Meditation - this is all about noticing where your thoughts are at, how they're making you feel and most importantly not getting irritated at yourself when you're not as 'zen' as you think you should be.
With all that said, I want to end by saying that we all slip in and out of states of negativity and positivity and that I think both have their purposes, even when it's not clear what that purpose is.
Take care :)