Can the default mode network and psychedelics change the way we think about ourselves? The default mode network (DMN) is a brain region that determines what you think about, how you react in situations, and helps define your sense of self, from your thoughts about the past to your hopes for the future.1
Even when your mind is at rest, it’s constantly active. Let’s say you’re standing in line without your phone and zone out. You think about how you’re feeling or what you’ll have for dinner—then remember that one time you told a joke at a party that didn’t land. That mind-wandering (and embarrassment) is the DMN in action.
Understanding the DMN can help us better understand how the mind works and how psychedelics can shift the way we feel about ourselves. However, when the DMN isn’t operating normally, it can increase negative thoughts and destructive feedback loops. So, what is the DMN, and how does it relate to mental health? Let’s dive in.
What Is the Default Mode Network?
If you’ve ever found yourself daydreaming instead of reading a book or writing a paper, you might be dealing with an active default mode network.
The default mode network is a system of brain structures that relate to self-reflection, thoughts of the future, and the ability to think about the mental states of others. 2 In this article, we’ll discuss prevailing theories. Still, it’s important to note that the default mode network is a newer concept. There’s still a lot that researchers don’t understand about the DMN, especially in terms of psychedelics.
Until recently, scientists didn’t know what happened when the brain wasn’t focused on a specific task. Then, in 2001, neuroscientist Marcus Raichle found that a brain region is active when a person is at rest. That region is the DMN.
Your brain can dial up or dial down different networks, depending on what you’re doing. For example, when working on something that demands your attention, your brain dials up the task-positive network (TPN). 1When your brain is processing your internal thoughts, your brain dials down the TPN and dials up the DMN.
Researchers suggest that these systems balance each other out in a healthy brain. Simply put, the DMN is most active when your mind is at rest; the TPN is most active when you’re focused on a task. (This inverse relationship is also why the DMN is also known as the “task-negative network.”) 1
However, the DMN is more complicated than just a wandering mind. Studies suggest that the DMN’s activity changes depending on a person’s consciousness and mental state. For example, DMN activity increases in schizophrenia and depression and reduces during meditative states and while under the influence of psilocybin (more on that later). 3,4,5,6
If you’re curious about DMN brain terminology, here are the regions that tend to be identified in the default mode network: 1
- Medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC)
- Posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)
- Left and right inferior parietal lobules (IPLs)
As a whole, the DMN plays a vital role in defining what makes us human. It allows us to remember our past experiences, plan for the future, and consider the thoughts and feelings of others. Additionally, the DMN helps define our ego: the part of our personality that helps us understand ourselves, our beliefs, our goals, and our needs. Our sense of self, if you will.
But when the DMN isn’t operating normally, it can lead to the negative thought spirals that define impulsive, destructive, and depressive thoughts.7 So, what happens when the DMN goes awry?
The Default Mode Network and Mental Health
Studies suggest that unusual DMN activity is associated with several mental and mood disorders. More research is needed to understand the relationship between the DMN and the brain, but here’s what the literature shows so far.
DMN and ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be associated with abnormal DMN activity. One symptom of ADHD is response inhibition, which means a person struggles to suppress inappropriate behaviors that interfere with a specific goal. 8
In 2016, researchers administered methylphenidate (a nervous system stimulant used to treat ADHD) to 42 boys who had recently been diagnosed with ADHD. The study assessed functional connectivity, or how well brain regions communicate with each other. The boys could not tune down the DMN while trying to focus on a task. 9
In other words, the DMN needs to be dialed down to perform a task successfully, but people with ADHD have a more difficult time reducing DMN brain activity.
DMN and bipolar disorder
Currently, few studies focus on the DMN in patients with bipolar disorder. Also called manic depression, bipolar disorder is defined by mood swings that range from manic highs to depressive lows.
One study found an abnormal relationship between the DMN and TPN in patients with bipolar disorder during their manic phase. The study suggests that this abnormality could contribute to a poor ability to manage emotional responses, which is a symptom of bipolar disorder. 10
DMN and depression
An overactive DMN might be related to negative rumination or the tendency to think about something carefully. Rumination can be good if you’re thinking over something important, but with depression, it can increase negative thinking and impair your ability to think. 1,11
Studies of patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) have also shown overactive DMN activity. In a 2012 review article, the authors suggest that depressed people can’t navigate away from their thoughts and emotions, which prevents them from focusing on a task. 1
DMN and schizophrenia
Brain imaging studies have found overactive DMN in patients with schizophrenia, although it’s unclear whether this activity is a cause or consequence of the disorder.1Researchers speculate that there’s a relationship between DMN dysfunction and the inability to recognize the feelings of others, which is a symptom of schizophrenia. 10
Neuroscientists Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, Ph.D., and Judith M. Ford, Ph.D., note that schizophrenia and depression cause similar DMN overactivation. “Perhaps an overactive DMN amplifies a focus on the inner mental world,” write Whitfield-Gabrieli and Ford. The processes in other brain regions might determine whether that focus becomes depressive rumination or schizophrenic paranoia. 1
How to Turn Off the Default Mode Network
The default mode network doesn’t really turn off. You can’t flip a switch and silence a wandering mind (as convenient as that would be). Instead, the DMN can either be enhanced or reduced. 7
The good news is that you can reduce the DMN using tried-and-true methods that activate your TPN. These practices help you shift your attention away from yourself and focus on your environment.
- Awe-inspiring experiences
- Deep breathing, such as holotropic breathwork
- Listening to happy, high-tempo music
- Physical touch
- Relaxation techniques
DMN and meditation
Meditation is a studied way to quiet the DMN. Specifically, mindfulness focuses a person’s attention on their immediate surroundings, which may help them stop hyper-focusing on themselves.
In 2011, researchers examined the brain activity of experienced meditators across different meditation types. They found reduced DMN activity and decreased mind-wandering, and the meditators had stronger connections in the parts of the brain associated with self-awareness. 5
Mindfulness meditation may help prevent the DMN from taking center stage and distorting a person’s sense of self because it shifts their awareness to the present, not their ego. Meditation teaches people to allow what’s going on in their heads to simply exist, without attaching any unnecessary weight to their thoughts and emotions.
The Default Mode Network and Psychedelics
Preliminary findings suggest that the default mode network and psychedelics go hand-in-hand. That’s because psychedelics have been shown to change DMN activity and connections in the brain. 19
Before diving into the science, it’s important to note that the DMN is a new area of study, and the intersection of the default mode network and psychedelics is even more recent. For now, we’ll look at research showing how psychedelics may affect consciousness and brain activity.
Psychedelics have sustained effects on feelings, emotions, mood, and a person’s perception of themselves. 20 New findings suggest that psychedelics can change brain structures that contribute to mental dysfunction, producing long-lasting improvements in people with mental health disorders.
In a review article published in 2018, the authors note that psychedelics cause brain changes clustered in the default mode network. Neuroscientists Anastasia Ruban and Aleksandra Ko?odziej speculate that the dissolution of self (aka ego death) correlates with decreased DMN activity. 19
However, preliminary findings suggest that various psychedelics affect the DMN. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of what we’ve learned so far.
The relationship between psilocybin and the default mode network isn’t totally clear. In depressed patients, some studies show increased functional connectivity in parts of the DMN, while others show decreased connectivity. Remember, “functional connectivity” is the strength of brain activity between brain regions over time.
Although it’s unclear how psilocybin directly DMN activity, one study found that it might be helpful to pair psilocybin intake with meditation.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 38 participants took one dose of psilocybin during a five-day mindfulness retreat. The researchers used MRIs to assess participants’s brain activity during their resting and meditative states.
When combined with meditation, psilocybin reduced DMN activity, which was associated with ego dissolution. The researchers found that the intensity of ego dissolution and brain connectivity translated to positive changes in the participants’ mental state four months after the retreat. 21
However, a separate study didn’t find the same correlation between decreased activity and the intensity of ego death, so other factors may determine the relationship between DMN activity, psychedelics, and ego death. 23
Additionally, long-term Ayahuasca use is associated with changes in the width of gray matter in the brain cortex (also known as cortical thickness). Changing the brain’s structure from psychedelic use might sound surprising. Still, decreased cortical thickness in a part of the DMN called the PCC (posterior cingulate cortex) correlates with religiousness, spirituality, and transpersonal emotions (feelings related to a person’s place in the universe). 25
Ketamine has also been shown to change DMN activity, but there are differences between healthy subjects and depressed people.
In 2018, a study examined changes in the brain after a single dose of ketamine. Healthy subjects exhibited increased connectivity throughout the brain. In depressed patients, DMN connectivity was normalized for two days after receiving a ketamine infusion, and the effects lasted for 10 days total. 26
DMN Frequently Asked Questions
What drug is associated with the default mode network?
Most research focuses on the effects of psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, ketamine, and DMT-containing Ayahuasca on the default mode network. However, other psychedelics may alter DMN activity.
Early data suggests that regular psychedelic drug use may lead to changes in the brain that support attention, self-referential thought, and reflective thinking. 25
What activates the default mode network?
Your DMN kicks in when you’re daydreaming, pondering about the future, thinking about what other people think of you, and even worrying about something you did earlier in the day—basically, thinking without a specific goal or objective.
Is the default mode network always running?
The DMN is always “on,” although it’s not always active. When you’re focused on a task or deep in a flow state, your DMN activity decreases, like the volume lowered on a dial. The DMN is still there in the background, though. (You don’t want brain regions to completely shut off.)
What is the opposite of the default mode network?
The opposite of the default mode network is the task-positive network (TPN), which activates when you’re focused on an attention-demanding task or something external in your environment.
You can engage your TPN by going on a walk, practicing yoga, focusing on your breath, or performing any other activity that forces your attention on the outside world rather than your inward thoughts and feelings toward others.
What is the relationship between the default mode network and ego?
When the DMN is reduced, the brain’s overall connectivity increases, which may contribute to ego death. Ego isn’t bad. It helps shape who we are and how we react to our world. However, it’s possible that quieting the default mode network can help people get outside of their heads and reassess their sense of self. 2
The default mode network is an integral part of the brain because it allows us to think inwardly and consider the thoughts and emotions of others. In a healthy brain, the DMN kicks in during periods of rest and daydreaming. When it’s time to focus on a task or goal, the DMN tunes down in favor of the task-positive network (TPN).
However, when the DMN takes center stage, it can lead to negative thoughts and feedback loops. Emerging research suggests that psychedelics can help change DMN activity and potentially increase connectivity in the brain. However, it’s still unclear what that means or how it all works.
For now, ways to reduce DMN activity include anything that helps refocus your attention on the broader world, including breathwork, meditation, and even getting out in nature and experiencing a sense of awe.
2. Pollan M. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Softcover large print edition. Penguin Press; 2018:480.
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