Cast your mind back to what happened to you this morning; now cast it back a little further, to earlier this week, to last year, to the years that have passed.
What happened? Who are you, the person it happened to? Think of all the stories you carry within you about who you are, about what the world is, about how you fit into it. How do you know all of this happened? Where is your proof? The proof, you will find, is in your memories, your stories of the past.
The Default Mode Network
We carry within our brains a “neural network” referred to as the “default mode network” (DMN) – and this network is an expert at developing stories about you.
This mode runs when your brain goes “offline” – that is, when you are not focusing on anything in particular, and it writes the story of your life, the story of who you are, all mostly when you are unaware that this is going on. It patches together a “movie”, staring the protagonist, you, and it explores your place in the world, your relationships, your identity, the identity of others, and it speculates about the type of world you live in.
The thing is, we don’t only make good stories about ourselves, and unfortunately, with our brain’s negativity bias, we are very adept at generating thrillers or horror stories, and our brain plays these for us over and over again.
Did you know that it is argued that 90% of the thoughts that we have today are the same ones we had yesterday? If we continue to automatically play these “movies” unchallenged, it is likely that we will replay the same stories again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And the implications of allowing this auto-pilot to continue are effectively captured by this quote, often attributed to Mahatma Ghandi:
Your beliefs become your thoughts
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your character
Your character becomes your destiny.
Some of us have a more active default mode network than others, and so will be more prone to drifting off into mind wandering, getting caught up in our “horror stories”.
In fact, it has been proposed that an over-active DMN may in fact be related to a greater predisposition to anxiety, depression, ADHD and PTSD. “Ruminative mind loops” are generally the focus of many dominant psychotherapeutic models. Thus the implications of letting your automatic mind “run the show” are not to be scoffed at.
If you have ever had the sense that you are stuck in a rut, you may already have grasped an intuitive sense of the repetitive loops of the mind.
However before you can change this process, you need to notice the “movie script” playing out within your mind. Awareness is key, then you can question for yourself the implications of believing the lines, of believing these thoughts as they automatically arise. Byron Katie has a series of questions she articulates in her method (referred to as “The Work”) that can provide a useful guide to examine and challenge unhelpful thoughts.
Using Mindfulness to Control the Default Mode Network
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce the activity of the default mode network. While there are numerous definitions of mindfulness, a general definition is that is involves an intention to pay attention to the present moment with an attitude of openness, curiosity and non-judgment.
This doesn’t mean that judgments don’t automatically arise, they do, but instead of believing them, we see them as judgments that the mind automatically generates, and so we do not judge ourselves for having them.
When we are intentionally paying attention to the present moment, what we are not doing is getting lost in thought and activating the DMN. However, since our minds are not very good at intentionally paying attention to the present moment, this is a skill that we need to actively train ourselves in. We can begin to do this by choosing a concrete, present moment anchor, and the most common anchor is the breath.
We begin with the intention – I am going to sit here and pay attention to my breath – and you will notice that within a few seconds or minutes the DMN will activate and your mind will start to wander. You intended to pay attention to your breath, but your DMN had other ideas, and your attention was hijacked.
As soon as you notice your attention has been hijacked and you are no longer focusing on your breath, your job is to renew your intention and bring your attention back to your breath again, with an attitude of kindness, the same type of kindness you would use to shepherd a puppy to where it needs to go.
Again, the DMN will activate, your mind will wander, and your job will be to renew your intention to focus your attention.
Many people believe that they can’t meditate because they are unable to focus their attention, but this is precisely why we meditate, it’s like taking your attention muscle to the gym. Each time you notice your mind has wandered, you renew your intention, bring your attention back to the breath, and by doing so you strengthen this noticing and attending “muscle”, bringing your attention back to the present moment or where you choose it to be.
The key here is that we are building in choice, reducing automaticity. The more you practice, the more you reduce the activation levels of your DMN. By implication, with increased practice, the more you live your life in a purposeful way, on your terms, unrestricted by the confines of old, limiting stories.
Other people may worry that meditation is a spiritual or religious practice and decide it’s not for them. It is true that meditation has been used by religions all over the world, but it does not belong to any religion, it is an attention training practice as it is used in the health care arena, grounded in science and research.
Whether you elect to find a mental health professional, join a meditation group, or look up the many online resources available, it is important to remember one essential point: There is no repetitive replaying of old stories that can capture the complex human being that you are, you are more than your stories. Do not be limited by them, if you believe everything you think, you will keep yourself small – living as a shadow of the person you could be, as the person you already are, if only you could see it.
Jina Kleynhans is a Clinical Psychologist, with a special interest in child and adolescent mental health and working with families. She finds it particularly rewarding to assist parents to find loving and effective ways of handling the challenges of parenting, particularly as she has plenty of firsthand experience herself.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Jina Kleynhans try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
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