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An image the human brain's default mode network, Credit: Marcus Raichle, Washington University

The Default Mode Network (DMN): Neuroscience & the Self Critic

(An image the human brain’s Default Mode Network, Credit: Marcus Raichle, Washington University)

What is the DMN?

The Default Mode Network (DMN) in the brain, is active when we stop doing something (and we are not in the task mode network, TMN). When the brain is not focused on a challenging or attention-grabbing task, we are no longer paying attention to the external world and the parts of the brain associated with this network light up. Our brain automatically brings together memory and thought and integrates both of these with our sense of self. Some scientists have said that the DMN is where the ‘self’ is located; it is the “me myself and I” network. It is self referential, self-other referential, future referential and past referential. It is universal to all humans and it is active immediately, as soon as we stop focusing on externals. It is not only the part of the brain where we “mind wander”; we use the DMN intentionally too. We do this when we are reaching for autobiographical memory, thinking about the future, using our imagination or empathising with someone. It can be active from the moment we wake up; it is the background of our days and is with us continually, even under anaesthesia as well as when we fall asleep at night. It is said to be the night garden in which our night dreams grow. It changes during the day as we integrate the day’s events, and this may be why the way we feel when we wake up can be so different from how we feel when we fall asleep. Interestingly, studies have shown that the two main activities where the DMN is completely switch off is when we play video games or when we smoke.

 

Scientists are still trying to find out exactly which parts and regions of the brain are involved most often. What is most important to know is that the parts of the brain that we use for this automatic integration of self and social connections are almost entirely different from the parts we use when we are concentrating on getting things done in the external world. For example, when we learn to do something new and are not therefore using procedural memory, the DMN goes offline as focused attention comes online. As the task becomes more automatic, the DMN starts to become active again. We could say that familiarity or boredom can be one of the prompting factors to the DMN coming into use.

 

(Figure of the seven different major networks and way the brain uses itself depending on what we are doing taken from Your Resonant Self by Sarah Peyton). Notice how different the DMN is form the others. Especially notice the DAN (Dorsal Attention Network). This is the network that most completely turns off the DMN; it come online when we are doing new or absorbing things like video games

 

DMN: Social Attachments & Predictions

Our social world as humans has become so incredibly complex. Our DMN is always trying to help us to stay afloat socially and keep our important attachments. It is trying to support our wellbeing. Memories don’t just help us to remember things; our DMN seems to use them to make predictions about what is going to happen next and what people are likely to be intending or thinking that helps us grow and move within our families and social groups. It also helps us, from when we are very young, ensure that we got our basic needs met, most especially attachments to important figures in our lives (when we were younger, our parents).

 

The DMN: Anxiety, Depression & Trauma

Many things change the way our DMN interacts with our externally focused brain including anxiety, trauma and depression. A ‘healthy’ DMN, which helps the brain integrate the experiences of life, requires that all regions of the DMN be interconnected and functional. When these interconnections between the DMN regions are disrupted (which can happen due to trauma, anxiety, depression and other illnesses that disrupt brain and neurotransmitter function), we can expect the brain to start spinning “negative” and self-debilitating thoughts whenever it is trying to rest. With early childhood trauma, the DMN can default to self-blame and self abuse rather than neutrality. People can be in the habit of walking around unconsciously berating themselves (or blaming others). If people feel badly about themselves, then this emotional tone can run through their automatic thoughts, can come like a knife in the dark whenever consciously directed activity stops.

 

The DMN: When it Becomes Toxic and Savage  

The main problem with such a savage DMN is connectivity. When certain brain regions are not corrected as they should be, negative thoughts and interpretations of life and the sense of self can grow. The more emotional pain and neglect a person has survived, the more likely it is for the DMN to be toxic and savage and for a harsh inner critic to take over. What is needed to correct these faulty connections and change the tone of a ruthless DMN is warm, responsive nurturing. It is often not what has happened to us, it is how it has been reacted to by those around us. If we receive a warm and nurturing response, we are more likely not to experience such disconnection and disintegration in the brain and nervous system. When people are in the grip of their own savage self-dislike, they can’t believe that they cared for by others, so they cant reach out to people and isolation is more likely. Changing the tone of the automatic way people speak to themselves is essential to making the mind and body a safer space to inhabit.

It is possible that part of the ongoing stream of distraction in our world helps people to manage the traumatised and unkind self-talk that starts as soon as they are quiet. This can happen unconsciously, which is why it is important to learn about and understand the DMN.

 

The DMN: Compassion & Meditation

The life that we live when we have integrated self compassion (when we can be gentle and warm with ourselves and others) feels very different from one lived inside a savage DMN.

It is important to know that, though mindfulness meditation is supposed to integrate the brain, the network used for meditation and the DMN can remain distinct. It can explain how somebody with years of meditation practice can still have a savage DMN that comes into play when they come off the cushion and why it is important to focus on both these aspects of the brain to heal a toxic and savage DMN.

Even If that inner critic is still trying to convince you that it is selfish to start caring for yourself, consider this: the ongoing self attack of living with a savage DMN is a sign that we may be living with PTSD. Research is showing that the different names we give to anxiety, social anxiety, general anxiety, PTSD, OCD and panic each have their own way of taking over our DMN and giving us a hard time.

The important thing to remember is that our brains don’t develop easily when we are not able to see and treat ourselves with affection. If no one we know has ever really held themselves with warmth, then we don’t have a model of how to do this. However, no matter how old we are, we can turn our compassion for others back towards ourselves and follow the invitation to self-care.

Procrastination

A recent study published by Psychological Science has produced evidence suggesting that procrastination is  a problem with managing emotions rather than time. The study links it to problems in connection between two key parts of the brain involved in the processing of emotion – the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. “Individuals with a larger amygdala may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action – they tend to hesitate and put off things,” says Erhan Genç, one of the study authors, based at Ruhr University Bochum.

So what might be at the root of the connections between these two regions becoming weaker? What experiences might have led us to becoming master procrastinators?

Adult Peekaboo

In her book “Taming Your Outer Child”, Susan Anderson describes procrastination as “the most pervasive and insidious stumbling block to success”. Acting like an Ostrich is our procrastinator part’s shortsighted idea of stress reduction but as the problem grows, the stress only increases. As Anderson bluntly states “a dirty nappy needs changing, not ignoring!”

Anderson believes that procrastination is an adult form of peekaboo. As newborns, when our Mum’s walked away from the cot, we panicked. To our infant brains, a Mum we couldn’t sense, was a Mum who had ceased to exist (huge anxiety, the Amygdala is involved at this stage). Mum has to be standing  by the cot to know that our source of survival was ensured. Mothers help their children manage these primal abandonment and separation fears by teaching them to play peekaboo. Your own mother probably did this instinctively; she smiled playfully as she disappeared and reappeared behind her hands. At first your laughter may have been nervous, but then as you got the hang of it there would be big belly laughs.of relief that Mum always came back again. You then learned that you could make her go away by covering your own eyes, and when you couldn’t stand it anymore, pop, you made her come back again. Hilarious! Through this game you found a way of managing your primal fear. You gained a level of control over this anxiety by making Mum appear and disappear again. 

When you learned to walk, you ventured away from Mum’s lap into different rooms. Then you came right back again to make sure she was where you left her. These playful repetition compulsions helped you to inculcate the message that Mum was a retrievable source of nurture. This strengthened the networks in the developing brain (including the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate  cortex) that coordinate emotional, behavioural and cognitive activities. 

As you grew a little older, what if there was something in the outside world you didn’t want to see – a dead squirrel for example.You learned you could play peekaboo in reverse; you could make it go away by tuning it out. Could you make other unpleasant things go away by blocking them out, turning your attention away from them? What if you had a difficult homework assignment? Could you make it go away by simply not doing it? As yu continued developing, you learned to play peekaboo in other situations. Through trial and error you learned what you could get away with. In adulthood, what if the boss treats you unfairly? Can you make the conflict go away by avoiding it? 

Repetition Compulsion

Anderson suggest that people who harbour a lot of negative feelings about themselves (low self worth, self confidence) avoid their responsibilities and become inured to extremely negative consequences. Things have to reach catastrophic proportions before are “forced” to finally do something about it. They avoid a weight problem for years before a doctor says “Lose weight or die”.  Anderson writes “Procrastinators are engaged in repetition compulsions where they abandon themselves over and over again by not taking care of their needs. As this and the study mentioned above suggests, procrastinators have important but neglected needs.  

Other points that Anderson makes in her book are that procrastination can have other childish roots; you avoid a necessary but boring task because  you assume that things will get taken care of somehow, by someone else (Mum for example). In the terrible twos, children learn to say “no” to just about everything. Into adulthood, it is possible that the child in you can hold onto these oppositional tendencies and self sabotages through procrastination. Procrastination from this point of view, combines the autonomous obstinacy of a two year old with the passive idea that someone else will take care of things. “I’ve got to work on those taxes” says your adult self, “not yet” says your child self. 

Perfectionism & OCD

Anderson also says that perfectionism (“its not worth doing unless its perfect so I’ll leave it”) OCD, (in this case the extreme inhibition rather than  the obsessive carrying out of an action) and the other childish belief that we can make a particular reality exist by not looking at it (in other words fantasy another example of peekaboo in reverse) are also at play in procrastination. 

And the answer to putting an end to chronic procrastination? She proposes her “Outer Child” program which uses mindfulness, visualisation and written practices including dialogue between the child and adult parts involved. As with ‘parts’ and subpersonalities approaches, she encourages a ‘stepping back’, a curiosity and non judgemental understanding of this part of the personality (which she calls the Outer Child) to avoid the common vicious cycle of punishing and diminishing self worth even further. In essences, she proposes a gentle program of getting this part of ourselves to grow up.  She writes “the impetus and drive required for such momentous change comes from tapping into your primal feelings and core needs”. 

“Taming Your Outer Child” is written by Susan Anderson, published by New World Library. 

Shame

There is no doubt, seeing the suffering of the depressed clients I work with, that feelings of shame can have huge consequences on wellbeing and sense of self.

Gershen Kaufman summed up many of the consequences of shame in one paragraph of his book on the psychology of shame (Kaufman, Gershen, Shame: The Power of Caring, Rochester, 1992):

“…shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem and deficient body-image. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness and perfectionism”.

As my previous post on the inner critic described, we all engage to some degree in a continuous dialogue with our inner critic’s voice. When our critic is very harsh, this is when shame can be felt and depression may follow. Unfortunately, as we tend to listen and believe our critic, we are primed to interpret situations in such a way that provides us with more evidence that our critic is  right. Our inner critic develops as a means of keeping ourselves in line; as mentioned before,  it tries its best to protect us from feeling rejected, left out, alone or abandoned. When it becomes too extreme however, it can become very destructive and increase this feeling of shame.

What can we do about feelings of shame?

Below are nine ways to begin working with your shame:

  1. Know that you were not born feeling shame about yourself. Know that shame is learned. Get curious about where and when and from who you learned your shame.

 

  1. Know that shame is NOT your fault, even though our shame tells us that it is and can be very convincing.

 

  1. Know that as adults, we can learn skills and get help in handling shame like learning to manage rejection. We can gain enough confidence to take chances and come out of hiding. There is always hope.

 

  1. Know that you can surround yourself with friends and partners who accept and love you for you. You can find people to share in your joy and excitement. You can find people who share your interest in being real and authentic.

 

  1. Practice changing your habitual reflex to shrink and hide. Slowly start experimenting with expansive feelings like joy, pride, interest and excitement when they arise by firstly acknowledging them. Notice if you immediately dismiss good feelings about yourself or towards others.

 

  1. Know that arrogance, contempt, perfectionism, pretenses, bullying behavior and aggression in general are often a cover for underlying shame. Notice (non-judgmentally) those defensive behaviours that you recognize in yourself and others.

 

  1. Practice offering compassion to the part(s) of you that feel ashamed or bad in the moments you are suffering most.

 

  1. Practice working with your shamed part(s) by asking it (them) as though it (they) were another person you were talking to “How did you learn to feel ashamed? From whom or where did you get this message?” Then be patient and listen to your shamed part(s). it might tell you something new.

Practice finding and validating the core emotions you have felt as a result of being shamed in the present or the past. (see my previous post on “Change”

Change

Most of us go to therapy because, at some level, to some degree, we recognise we need to change. Things aren’t working as they are. Relationships at home, at work, or more generally aren’t functioning anymore. We can’t go on as things are.

Some of the time, it is external circumstances that need changing but more often than not, it is something within us, internally that we have to get a hold of. We have become out of touch with who we are; we don’t feel “ourselves”. We have been avoiding facing things for a while. We have perhaps been blocking our emotions. 

Most of us block access to our core emotions with a variety of creative defenses originally designed to protect us from emotional pain and discomfort. While offering us emotional protection, defenses block access to our core emotions, which leads to chronic states of anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems. As adults, we need to relearn to experience our core emotions safely. By doing so, anxiety and depression are reduced and we feel much better.

For example, “Joe” was effectively taught by his father, due to being repeatedly ridiculed, not to show sadness and definitely not to cry. His brain learned to thwart sadness using shame, an inhibitory emotion. But we need to experience all our core emotions to feel vital and authentic and to recover from life’s losses. People who cannot experience sadness get “stuck” and develop psychological symptoms, which are in fact cues that something within us needs attention and care. By working to undo the connections between sadness and shame in his brain, Joe learned to experience sadness once again and felt better in a whole host of ways. Moving through our emotions regulates the brain and nervous system. That is why, when we connect to our core emotions and move through them, we feel more confident, calm, and clear.

What are core emotions? They are largely physical sensations that we come to recognize and name as a particular emotionCore emotions inform us about our environment. Am I safe or in danger? What do I need/want and don’t want? Am I sad? Am I hurt? What brings me pleasure? What disgusts me? What excites me? Core emotions are hard-wired in the middle part of our brains, meaning they are NOT subject to conscious control. Triggered by the environment, each core emotion is pre-wired to set off a host of physiological reactions that prime us for action. Core emotions are brilliant: if we get out of their way, their innate programming tells us what to do to live life adaptively. The core emotions are: sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement and disgust.

What are inhibitory emotions? Inhibitory emotions block core emotions. Shame, anxiety and guilt, the inhibitory emotions, block core emotions: 1) when they are in conflict with what pleases others whom we need like parents, peers, and partners; 2) when core emotions become too intense and our brain wants to shut them down to protect us from the emotional overwhelm. 

What are defenses? Defenses are anything we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions. Depression is a defense because in that state we are out of touch with our core emotions. There are an infinite number of defenses but some of the other common ones in our culture are: joking, sarcasm, too much “screen time,” criticizing, spacing out, procrastination, preoccupation, negative thinking, misguided aggression, working too much, over-exercising, over-eating, under-eating, cutting, sex, obsession, addiction, etc.

 

The Change Triangle

The Change Triangle, devised by psychotherapist, Hilary Hendel, is intended to help in that immediate moment when something within you, or someone or something in your environment causes you to experience emotional struggle. When you figure out where you are on The Triangle, the idea is that you feel better for two reasons: 1) just from gaining some distance and perspective from your immediate feeling; and 2) from having some direction of what to do to help yourself feel better.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Identify which corner you most closely find yourself.
  2. Pause, breathe, and calm yourself for a few seconds at least.
  3. Try to identify all the underlying core emotions coming up in the moment. There may be more than one. Name each one you can.
  4. Think through the best way to proceed in the moment.

With a little practice, when you ask, “Where am I on The Change Triangle right now?” you will realize that your emotional state is found at one of three corners of The Triangle:

a) Top left corner – Defense

b) Top right corner – Anxiety, Shame or Guilt

c) Bottom corner – Core Emotion

Or below The Triangle, in a calm state of peace and openheartedness – where we all hope to spend much more time. The state below The Triangle is accessed by “listening” to what the core emotion of the moment is telling us, by honoring what it says and by letting the associated body sensations move through freely until they naturally subside. Core emotions are wavelike in nature: rising then ebbing.

This of course is an alternative way to that of working with parts or sub-personalities (see earlier posts) though it is essentially the same: we identify which part we are acting from (step 1 above), we try and separate from it (step 2), notice it from a place of the witnessing self (step 3) , give it some attention, perhaps ask what it needs and then respond by fulfilling that need from the place of a calm, compassionate self (step 4).

Whichever approach you find fits best, or even if you were to use a combination of both, the key is to identify and then safely process or release the core emotion.

This is what can bring about real change.

Observing & Witnessing

When we have thoughts or desires that we don’t believe are appropriate or are painful, we often keep them tucked away in the unconscious mind and nervous system. As long as we keep them there, we remain unaware of them and will act out on them without realising it. Vipassana or Insight Meditation, one of the the most ancient forms of meditation, allows you to see these thoughts and desires – when you see them and observe them, you can release them and they you are no longer trapped by the unconscious and having to program yourself. Until that time, the unconscious mind becomes a trap.

5 minute meditation

The aim of this 5 minute mediation is to bring the mind into a state where it is detached but observant of all elements of present moment experience that arise (thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, sensory perceptions and body movements). 

Sit in a comfortable position.

Close your eyes or keep them half open and relaxed.

Lengthen the spine and relax, tuck the chin down slightly.

Simply notice your thoughts, feelings, sensations and all experience, as each moment passes, with no judgment. Simply be the witness.

When you feel yourself getting caught up in scenarios or thoughts or feeling states, notice or observe them and let them go.

Wait to see what comes next and then treat what comes in the same way

Don’t actively try to bring thoughts up.

If there are blank spaces, allow the mind to rest in those spaces, like pauses

Your thoughts may come as images, simply observe them in a detached manner and release them and wait to see what comes up next.

With practice, you will develop openness of mind and will let go of having judgment of thought. If your find yourself giving preferential treatment to certain thoughts or images such as believing this is good or this is bad, I wish this wasn’t true, simply notice this and let it go.

If you find that certain thought pattern are returning and repeating and are getting n the way, revert back to simple breathing meditation, simply watching the rise and fall of each breath, until you feel calm and centered again.

Each time you notice thoughts or images some into your mind, just let them go. If you are unsure how to let the thoughts or images go, simple take a deep breath in and as you exhale image the thoughts blowing out with the breath. Clearing the slate, clearing the mind.

In your own time, at your own pace, gentle draw your attention back to the body and the breath.

Observe how you are feeling at this time, at this moment.

When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and take in your surroundings.