HSPs and Default Mode Network
What do you think it is that makes HSPs so self-reflective? We inherently have the internals for deep processing, deep reflection, and deep emotional churn, but is this all that is at play here? Is this a sufficient explanation?
In reading Michael Pollen’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, I discovered a term that intrigued me. He speaks of the default mode network (DMN) and how psychoactive plants and drugs interfere with the function of the default mode network in the human brain. The DMN is a brain network of various brain structures instrumental in creating moments of self-reflection and daydreaming when the brain is engaged in a task-negative state. It is where our minds go when we are not in goal-seeking, active task mode.
It made me wonder if this is a state that HSPs are prone to enter more than non-HSPs. This type of reverie and disengaged self-reflection reminds me of the rumination many HSPs get caught up in regularly. If so, does this explain our tendency for long periods of deep reflection, and are we naturally drawn to this state because of our deep processing capabilities and the need for self-reflection?
What is the Default Mode Network?
Hans Berger first proposed a default mode network, the inventor of the electroencephalograph (EEG), to account for his observation that the brain, even at rest, is busy. Marcus Raichle of the Washington University School of Medicine later coined the term default mode network. DMN is characterized by daydreaming, future-looking thoughts, gauging other’s perspectives, and especially with self-reflection. An output of DMN state is often spontaneous thinking which can lead to creative thinking. DMN seems to begin developing in the human brain around ages nine to twelve.
DMN may also be implicated with disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Autism and Schizophrenia, by reduced activity of the DMN. Even in the DMN state, the brain consumes about 20 % of the body’s energy, much more than any other organ. DMN is not still fully understood.
The Purpose of the DMN
The DMN is now often associated with the social brain and the social understanding of others. It appears to be involved with emotion perception, empathy, theory of mind, and morality. This leads to aiding in understanding others, understanding self, controlling self, and processes that control the social interface between self and others. Its tie to memory also aids in making predictions about the behavior of others and provides a framework for moral judgments of other’s behaviors.
It is also most notably tied to the notion of ego or self-identity. The ego is our self-definition of who we think we are, regardless of how subjective and incorrect that definition may be. In other words, when the brain is not task busy, it often turns inward to think of itself. The operative word here is daydreaming, something that HSPs do regularly. Another reason to suspect that DMN has special meaning for highly sensitive people.
To me, this sounds much like a type of twilight thinking mode, a reverie state, much like twilight sleep, that few moments of in and out of consciousness we experience just before bedtime. This mode of thinking sees the world through our perceptions and ideals, sometimes to exclude external feedback. I have often mentioned this in the blogs and my book, Confessions of a Sensitive Man. As deep-thinking individuals, we often create ideas of ourselves that have no social confirmation because we hold them tightly to our vests. We lock ourselves in these self-contained prisons and never test our theories in the outside world. We are, perhaps, locked in our DMN based logical loops.
What is the relevance to HSPs?
Are we more prone to activation of this state than most of the population? Just following anecdotal social media discussion group conversations would indicate that this may be the case. Many HSPs, especially introverted HSPs, would find comfort in this type of state — brain at rest, task neutral and reflecting on self, and predicting the behaviors of others. A controlled state of mind, where outcomes are constantly evaluated in a safe place, evaluating memories (rumination) and developing strategies of future behavior. A staging ground in facing the world.
I am not placing a value judgment on this, simply looking at the likelihood that this would be something that many HSPs, myself included, would find comforting in our downtime. It is also a place of spontaneous idea generation, resulting in some very creative ideas and could explain our tendency towards creativity. Conversely, it could lead to too much rumination, which is often the antecedent to depression and anxiety.
Can this state be induced and controlled?
Since the brain “defaults” to this mode when we are not actively engaged in task-positive activities or goal-seeking activities, whenever we remain in a task-negative situation, we are going to be in DMN, unless, of course, we are asleep. The extent that we are more “active” or “non-active” may be the determining factor as to whether we are in DMN or not. It is interesting to note that meditation, a task that would seem task neutral, helps facilitate the entering of DMN and can positively affect both DMN and TPN modulation.
In a Buddhist sense, the DMN can be like the monkey mind, scattered and full of intrusive random thinking. Meditation is a way to help harness the monkey by applying mindfulness to aid in controlling daydreaming for purposeful pursuits. Daydreaming can be positive constructive (creativity seeking), or guilty dysphoric (obsessive anxiety), or attentionally out of control (scatterbrained). If we use the DMN for constructive pursuits, we are fully utilizing its positive capacity.
Since the DMN is both forward and backward seeking (attachment to memory), it can keep us from staying in the present moment. It can also take us down well-worn neural pathways that can lead us to anxiety, worry, and pessimism. The DMN can be overactivated, leading to hyperconnectivity, which sounds like something many HSPs should be familiar with, much like our overstimulation.
How do we control this? For one, we can alter our consciousness with mindfulness mediation. What has also been suggested is the use of mind-altering plant medicines (i.e., psilocybin, mescaline, ayahuasca, et al.) Psychedelic drugs deactivate the DMN’s integration function within the brain, a homeostatic state that leaves us in a state of “baby “consciousness, a primitive functioning state. I’ll leave that for another day’s discussion but mounting research in the use of psychoactive plants is showing promise for this in a controlled way with therapeutic supervision.
Another option is to change the neural pathway route by invoking TPN-related tasks. This is essentially leaving DMN mode by thinking outside of the box, in essence creating new thoughts. This may lead to another option that utilizes unfettered creative thinking. Thinking abstractly, like purposeful playfulness, opens the door to new ideas and breaks the sameness of DMN thinking. I liken this to hopeful, optimistic thinking. Finally, we can change the channel by focusing on the positive past versus the negative past. Focus on successes and not dwell on failures.
A recent study highlights the observation that tactile stimulation appears to deactivate the DMN as well as does the use of visual and auditory stimulation. So, get out there and hug someone, with their permission, of course. Watch a movie or listen to some meaningful music if you get trapped in DMN no man’s land.
Are there any benefits to this state?
It appears that DMN is part of the standard equipment with human brains. It has both positive and negative attributes, which we should all be mindful of. It seems clear that harnessed with mindfulness being in DMN mode can lead to moments of creativity and reverie. Its use of memory to look backward and forward can, without your control, lead to depression or anxiety or positivity and confidence, depending on your controlling the focus.
It appears to some extent to be a gateway to the unconscious or at least unconscious long-term memory. That can be good or bad, depending on what is retrieved. And it appears to be a fine line between states of dementia, PTSD, depression, and Autism. Nevertheless, we should be aware of when we are in DMN and how it is affecting us. By reducing unbridled DMN thought creating, we can allow ourselves to experience the present moment with greater objectivity, which Shapiro calls “re-perceiving.”
With focused attention via mental training to reduce competitive distraction and daydreaming, we can spend some of the negative DMN time on something more optimistic and positive. Although I must be honest, I do love my daydreaming time.
Please share your thoughts in the comment section.