I woke up worried the other day, and I just couldn’t shake the thoughts.
So I reached for an app that I use occasionally called Stop, Breathe, and Smile. It’s a great little app that allows you to check in on how you are feeling and then offers several customized activities based on your current state. I listened to 7 minutes of the “Relax, Ground and Clear,” meditation, and now, as I type this, I truly feel relaxed, grounded, and clear.
Why did it take doing this exercise for me to come back to calm? Why couldn’t I just order myself to “clear my mind”?
It turns out, according to a study by two Harvard psychologists, A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, 47% of the time, human beings are thinking about something other than what we are doing. That’s almost half of our lives!
Let’s dig into the details a little more to understand why the mind does this... and what to do about it.
David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work does a great job explaining in his article “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness”. In a nutshell, when your mind is wandering, you are in the Default Mode Network (DMN), also known as “being on automatic.” Think of the times when you were worried about a deadline for a certain work project or repeatedly regretted what you said to someone you love earlier that day-- and you’ll know exactly what it feels like to be in the story-weaving, mind-wandering DMN. Certain parts of our brain light up when the DMN is active, including the:
Hippocampus (short-term memory),
Amygdala (fear center), and
Medial prefrontal cortex (decision-making).
The same Harvard study also found that two-thirds of the time that we are in the DMN, we are thinking negative or neutral thoughts (not positive!)
Rock then refers to a directly counter network, which he calls the Direct Experience Network, in which we are fully present to the sensations (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound) around and within us. When we are in this network, different parts of the brain turn on, including the:
Insula (sensory perception) and
Anterior cingulate cortex (attention switching/emotional regulation).
We are then totally, inarguably, in the present moment. The most amazing thing I learned from Rock is that to the degree that we focus on the sensations we are experiencing, we are equally able to reduce our mind wandering and overthinking. Amazing.
I brought this research, and my questions, to a mentor of mine, Dr. Gus Castellanos, a retired neurologist who is certified to teach Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction by the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness and who serves as a consultant to the Calcagnini Center for Mindfulness at Jupiter Medical Center in Jupiter, Florida. He shared with me that there is actually a third “mode” that the brain enters, and it’s called the Executive Function Network (EFN). It’s the mode in which we solve problems, make choices, and navigate the world-- we are in neither of the two prior modes-- daydreaming or direct sensory experience. The parts of the brain that are active in this state are:
Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (planning/reasoning) and
Parietal cortex (navigation through the world).
There you have it-- your brain’s “modes” in a nutshell. Most importantly the takeaway is this: endeavor to be in either the Executive Function Network or the Direct Experience Network (also known as the Salience Network by medical practitioners). Do your best to minimize the amount of time you spend in that first unproductive bucket, the Default Mode Network, because it will have you spinning stories and worries.
In other words, if you find yourself obsessing about something that happened earlier that day or that week, or worrying about an upcoming event in the future, you are literally draining your energy to no good end. The mind will machinate (like any good machine) all day long with no resolution. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Mark Twain: “I’ve had many worries in my life, most of which have never happened.”
Want to know how?
Follow These 4 Easy Steps to Reduce the Time You Spend in Distracted, Often Negative, Mind-Wandering:
Stop. Bring awareness to how you feel.
Identify your current state. What emotions are present?
Practice a simple mindfulness meditation. For example, bring your awareness to your breath as you breathe. Notice how, in just 3-5 minutes, how those pesky thoughts have dissipated.
Finally, notice how you feel afterward so you can reinforce the benefit of the practice in your experience— and remember to do it again next time.
Take care of yourself. Give yourself a break!
In lightness and ease,