The Daydreaming, Default state of your brain

There is a state that everyone’s mind goes to when we’re not focused on something in particular, or our brain is not completing a specific task, and unfortunately it’s not Hawaii. Neuroscientists like Dr Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University have called this non directed activity the brain’s “default state”. Curiously when this default state of the brain is studied in depth, the results indicate that when we are apparently doing “nothing” or daydreaming, our brain activity appears to be more active than when we are centered on a specific task. I want to go back and tell this to my grade nine Spanish teacher. See Mrs Mathers, I am doing my work!
What’s interesting, and I’m shortening this up a lot, (forgive me Dr McGonigal) is that it is this default, daydreaming state that seems to bring up much of your shame, fears and worries. The default state is highly active when we blame and judge others, but perhaps more importantly, it seems to be very concerned with self judgments and comparison to other people. Its like having a heckler living in my own head!
It seems the brain’s default state is something we slip into many times a day, and perhaps it is there to show you what’s wrong in your life, rather than point out where you are lacking. My own theory is that the brain’s default state bringing up these things so that you can see them and “fix” them. The problem is that these negative judgments cannot be fixed or healed with the negative emotions they invariably bring up. One can only fix blame shame and judgment with compassion and gratitude and kindness i.e. love based feelings. The obvious problem here, is that those judgmental and comparative feelings from the default state don’t make you feel very loving towards yourself (or others) and traps you in that shame filled default state. Therefore you stay locked in a default state of fear, which just reinforces the negative emotions you’re feeling ie we get trapped in a vicious cycle of self blame and fear and self blame… The solution, has been suggested to sit in a milieu of compassion and love for yourself, while at the same time holding these negative feelings and judgments feelings about yourself in consciousness. In that kindness based state, shame, blame and judgment can soften and integrate so they can be processed and “filed away” or integrated in the brain so they don’t need to come up so strongly.  (I know this sounds out there, especially for an MD, but as a neuroscientist and medical doctor I swear there is some science behind it.)

It seems that mindfulness practitioners and meditators, in their focused practice of staying in the moment, are able to modify their experience in the default state. It is important to note that even experienced meditators and mindfulness practitioners still drop into this default state frequently, but according to Dr McGonigal, they differ from non practitioners in two main ways. Mindfulness practitioners and meditators seem to realize they have entered this default state, and they are also quicker at getting themselves out of default when compared to age matched controls. Perhaps by focusing their brain on present moment awareness, this blocks the pathway for the default state to hijack the brain into a shame/blame/pain (SBP) state. So, conscious awareness allows space for us to step back and see what the brain is “doing” and then provides the conscious choice of whether to stay in this SBP state.

But I think the default state may actually be helpful, as it provides a perfect place to feel the uncomfortable feelings and consciously practice understanding and compassion for yourself. Accepting your human “faults” and seeing yourself with compassion is key. I love the concept of finding the part of you that doesn’t accept yourself and accepting that part! In work with memory, Dr Robert Bjork states that memory recall is a memory modifier, and the same thing can be said about dealing with our own perceived shortcomings and misdeeds. Bringing your past SBP to conscious awareness and also consciously creating a soft, understanding place for you to accept and care for yourself may be the greatest gift of the brain’s default state. Its not there to beat you down, but to give you the opportunity to integrate old wounds.  In other words, using conscious awareness of your shame blame and judgment, creates a realization that you are in the default state, and this realization allows you to make a different choice. Once we see that we are in the default state, we can then choose a path that was previously invisible in the haze of fear and self retribution, the path of self acceptance and gratitude for the opportunity to see your old pain in a brand new way. In the place of the reflexive and self propagating fear state that only reinforces a negative view of self, a new option appears that provides an opportunity to modify your reflexive and automatic negative responses to your own perceived faults. Consciously bringing positive emotion to these negative opinions of yourself (essentially accepting and loving the part of you that doesn’t accept you) seems to be a way of escaping the pain of the default state while you are IN it.

My own theory is that the more your own perceived SBP is met with compassion and understanding, when it comes up in the default state the more that SBP will be attenuated and integrated. By integrated, I mean your SBP will carry less negative emotional charge over time, and simply put, your brain can create a story that forgives you and others that have hurt you, or simply makes sense of what you went through. Consequently, the less intense your default mode will become over time and this will ease the urge to blame and judge yourself and others, and everyone gets ice cream! Ok, maybe a little flippant dealing with the traumas there,  but when you lose the desire to shame, blame and judge, everybody wins. (Except the lawyers).

Freud had a theory that humans have a repetition compulsion, in that we repeat patterns that are unresolved from our past. I’m finding this very reminiscent of the default state bringing up old SBP. I had patient for many years who I’ll call Jane. Jane was in her mid thirties when she came to me with a significant depression. She looked very much like Susan Sarandon and had a very similar voice to the well known actress. As a bit of background, Jane was intelligent, articulate and attractive and men were constantly attracted to her. She had a steady stream of boyfriends, but few lasted more than a couple of months. Frustratingly, for both me and Jane, she would enter into relationships with abusive alcoholics who would make her life miserable. Well, I’m sure she attracted “nice guys” too, but it seems she would only be attracted to the men who would treat her badly.  I’m sure Jane was repeating a program from her past.  Jane grew up with an alcoholic, verbally abusive father she could never please. Despite knowing intellectually that she picked abusive alcoholics, she couldn’t break the cycle. Looking back, knowing what I know now about the default state of the brain, I cant help but think that it played some role in her recapitulating her painful past.

In conclusion, my own feeling (and this is not backed up by any science I am aware of, just in my own head) is that past emotional wounding that hasn’t resolved, shows itself in the default state of the brain, just as it likely did with Jane. I’d like to think Jane was seduced into repeating the behavior as an opportunity to bring it to consciousness  in order to resolve or and modify it ie the default state may be the brain’s way of bringing unresolved traumas up so that there is an opportunity to heal those traumas.

The rub, is that in bringing up old SBP we are subjected to the negative experience of the original wounding, and many of us will age regress to the time of that original wounding, making it even less likely that we see a more conscious path of self-compassion and kindness. When we are in SBP we often have a 5 or 6 year old in charge, and the options of a child are limited. I know when my inner 6 year old is calling the shots, things rarely go well. Wounding that we didn’t have the tools to deal with as children, I believe, lodges itself in our subconscious mind and pops up in the default state.  Until we realize that we can grow ourselves up and take a new path of rising above our old wounds and treating ourselves with compassion and kindness, we are likely to stay stuck and sucked into shaming and blaming ourselves for something that wasn’t our fault.

Complicating matters, I have a sense the default state is an opportunist. It tends to come up more when we are tired, anxious, stressed, or anytime when our emotional reserves are low, making it less likely that we have the strength to choose a new path of finding that benevolence for ourselves. In a mind afflicted by shame blame and judgment, it takes a conscious effort to change course 180 degrees!  Indeed, the default state seems to be more “sticky” in those suffering from anxiety and depression, and there is evidence that those people (and I include myself in this category)  have a difficult time escaping the default state. Perhaps anxiety and depression IS the default state in those of us with old wounding that remains unintegrated and keeps coming up, over and over, until it is somehow resolved.

So, to my final point. If we can “see” the default mode and its negative images and judgments of ourselves, we can return to the moment, by seeing our thoughts as just thoughts or “brain droppings”, to quote the late, great George Carlin. We can also practice centering ourselves in our breath or doing some yoga or qigong eg, or we can use the opportunity that is given to us to heal our own self-created expectations and judgments by embracing and loving the part of us that doesn’t accept ourselves. Either way, the “negative” default state can be seen as a motivator and facilitator of positive change. Or, you can keep torturing yourself.

I love the saying “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master”.  When I did Byron Katie’s School for the Work in 2015, she said something that really resonated with me. In talking about breathing, she said when you are feeling anxious, you are not breathing yourself, the anxiety is breathing you! The anxiety is in charge and you are “being breathed” by the anxiety. The same can be said of the Default state, you are not thinking, you are “being thought”.  So, just as you have a choice of taking over your own breathing, you can take over your own thoughts and give yourself whatever graciousness you need to resolve your old shame blame and judgment so the default state can be a nice place to visit, but you don’t have to live there.

Your choice, master.


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