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Changing the Brain's Default Mode

What I Learned | 14:06


In the midst of being charged at by twenty masked men armed with rifles and explosives, Sally Adee was able to calmly and smoothly shoot down all of her attackers one by one. Sally didn’t entirely grasp what had happened - from her perspective, the 20 minute skirmish lasted only a few moments, and when it was over, she asked “How many did I get?” Not realizing she had successfully taken down all 20 men. This was very impressive, considering Sally is not a sniper, but a journalist and this was only the second time she had been in a situation like this. After all, this took place in a battlefield simulator in a training facility for snipers. 

In Sally’s first run on the simulator, she panicked, was overwhelmed by how many enemies there were and jammed her rifle several times. What made the difference was that in the second run, she had a transcranial direct-current stimulator strapped to her head. This is basically a helmet that runs an electrical current through your brain, with the aim of enhancing cognitive performance. 

In a February 2012 issue of New Scientist, Sally described being hooked up to the brain helmet as a “near-spiritual experience…” She said that “the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut up… There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head… ”The purpose of the transcranial stimulator was actually to shortcut the subject into achieving an elusive mental state known as “flow” - a term popularized by Hungarian Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

It’s a state of effortless concentration, optimal performance and, as Mihaly puts it, it’s “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” and it usually occurs “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” This is something that may be experienced by an athlete during competition, a musician trying to nail a difficult piece, or even someone working on a project - trying to meet a deadline with only hours to spare. In his book titled “Flow,” Mihaly describes how skilled people like artists, chess masters, and even surgeons, who, when sufficiently challenged, will literally lose themselves in the activity.

Like Sally Adee, all data irrelevant to the task at hand, including the sense of self and the chatter in the head that comes with it, cease to exist. Unfortunately for us, the brain’s default mode of operation is pretty much the opposite of this enjoyable state of high focus and high performance. fMRI studies have found that there is a set of brain regions known as the “task negative network” or the “default mode network” that are active whenever you aren’t focused on anything in particular. This study is showing that  the regions associated with the default mode network negatively correlate with task positive brain regions. Essentially, when you aren’t focused on anything, there will be increased activity in the default mode network and less activity in the task positive regions, and the opposite is true when you are paying attention to something. 

The areas of the brain that belong to the default mode network are responsible for self-referencing, understanding other people’s emotions, remembering the past, imagining the future, and general mind wandering. If you’ve seen the TV show Westworld, you may be familiar with the concept of the Bicameral Mind - this idea, presented in Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of The Bicameral Mind” says that until as recently as 3000 years ago, humans were simple automatons acting out the will of the gods, which was delivered to them via a voice in their heads.

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