Step 2: Understanding my thoughts
Whenever I find myself in a quiet place with nothing to do and I begin to let my thoughts drift, I start to hear my inner voice. It’s not particularly nice. In fact, it talks incessantly and doesn’t know when to shut up!
It reminds me of all the things I did wrong today. All the ways I let myself and others down. It also talks me through a seemingly endless list of things I still have to do in the future.
There are time when I listen to that voice and I feel angry, sad, scared and anxious. That voice loves to criticize me and fills me with shame and remorse.
Hearing a voice in your head is normal!
Now, before you start to worry that I am hearing voices in my head, that inner voice has a name. Neurobiologists refer to it as the Default Mode Network (DMN). It’s the part of our brain that switches on whenever we are no longer engaged in a specific brain activity.
It is basically our automatic or default setting.
Remember last time we were talking about the limbic system? Well the Default Mode Network is linked to this part of the brain. Just for a moment, imagine one side of your brain is like a fist with the thumb trapped inside.
The wrist represents the brainstem, and this is the part that is keeping you alive. It works automatically and does not require any thought. The thumb represents the limbic system, which is the emotional centre of the brain. The four fingers are therefore the Default Mode Network. The part of the brain that cradles the emotional centre.
So what exactly does the DMN do? Well no one knows for sure, but they think it is responsible for a number of functions. Firstly, its the part of the brain that recognises the ‘self’. I know who I am. Not just my name and other simple facts. I know what makes me, me. Does that make sense?
The DMN also thinks about others – their thoughts and feelings. It helps you to process why people do the things that they do. Or whether something is fair or good. It’s your moral compass, and the part of your brain that is responsible for empathy (or lack thereof in some cases).
Finally, the DMN is thought to be responsible for remembering the past and imagining the future. It’s not just about recalling a sequence of events, either. Our DMN is essentially using memories and imagination to tell us a story. Think of it as our narrator through life.
What does your DMN say about you?
Have you ever been sat in a lecture theatre or reading a really fabulous blog post (ahem) and found your thoughts drifting elsewhere? That’s your DMN. It activates every time your mind switches off and starts wandering.
We don’t always notice it, and we’re not particularly good at hearing what it has to say. Often that’s because we are too busy to pick out the individual words, so all we end up hearing is an incessant buzzing in our mind. Like bees hovering around a lavender bush.
Nevertheless it is there, and depending upon a number of factors, our DMN has the potential to be pretty mean.
It doesn’t start out that way. As children, our parents give us a sense of self. They make us feel accepted and they accompany us on our journey through life. Good parents are there for their children rather than rejecting them, because children do not thrive or develop normally when they are left alone.
Really good parents do not simply attempt to assure their children when they are experiencing challenging emotions, but instead try to understand them and help them through it. When my daughter comes home and tells me that a boy in her class called her ugly, I could just tell her to ignore him and reassure her that she is perfect just the way that she is.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that reaction. The problem is that I have not really helped her to work through her emotions and process that experience. So how will she ever learn to do this on her own?
Instead, I could get down to her level and ask her to talk me through what happened. I could help her to explore how it made her feel and come to a resolution before moving on. Now that’s next level parenting, and often I am too exhausted or distracted to get there.
How our childhood experience impacts our DMN
The truth is, most of us probably didn’t get much of this growing up. So is it any wonder that we are not particularly good at doing it for ourselves as adults? My mother found it difficult to handle any situation in which I was exhibiting an emotional response. She often shut down, pushed me away or got angry at me.
My father was worse. He punished me for showing my emotions and he was also an expert at using them against me. At times he would mock me for being weak, and at others he would dismiss me altogether.
I’m not trying to get you to feel sorry for me. I bet you there are quite a few people reading this blog post today who can relate to my experience. But even if your parents did not reject you when you were growing up, that doesn’t mean they were very good at helping you process your emotions.
As a result, our default mode networks are kind of ‘faulty’, for want of a better word. Many of us lack self compassion and kindness. If we experienced trauma growing up, then our left brain is on constant alert and we have no time for compassion because we are just trying to stay alive and not get hurt again. But even those of us who had a relatively happy childhood may still be walking around with a very critical inner voice.
Back in 2014, a group of researchers demonstrated that people would prefer to give themselves an electric shock than sit alone in a room with their thoughts for 15 minutes. To begin with, after experiencing the first shock in the experiment, almost all of subjects were willing to pay a small amount of money to avoid experiencing it again.
And yet, that all changed when left alone with nothing but their DMN to keep them company!!! 15 minutes in, two thirds of them self-administered an electric shock rather than sitting still with their own thoughts. One man shocked himself 190 times! 190 times!!! It just goes to show that I am not the only one with a mean inner voice.
How to fix your DMN
Full disclosure: I am by no means an expert, and I’m only just beginning to understand this relatively new field of research. But from what I understand, video games are an excellent way to switch off our DMN. So is smoking. Any task that requires cognitive thought tends to subdue it too, which is why I like to distract myself with tasks when I am feeling low.
And there is emerging evidence that food subdues our DMN too.
That explains so much about me. Not just me either. How many people reading this would willingly chose to spend 20 minutes allowing their mind to wander with no distractions instead of watching a movie and eating their favourite snack? Or playing a game on their phone? Or logging on to social media?
The good news is that we can totally train the brain (in particular the right pre-frontal cortex) to take control of our DMN and stop it from being so mean. This fact underpins the relatively new field of neuroplasticity. Although, if you think about it, people have been doing it for millenia and we probably ought to be looking to indigenous peoples for the answers.
Whether it be Shamans or spirit animals or a whole host of other techniques, the more civilised amongst us (ie. indigenous people) have always recognised the importance of connection and collaboration in order to thrive as individuals. It’s only the ignorant so-called developed world that thinks we can do this thing called life without help.
I have always known that the key to making lifelong healthy choices was by conquering my mind as opposed to my dinner plate. Eating less and exercising more is the best way to lose weight, but it hardly ever works on its own. At least now I know where to start.
As I continue to explore ways in which to fix my brain one step at a time, I will add new posts. In the meantime, if you’re ahead of me and want to share your own experience or advice, then why not drop a comment below? For more information or to subscribe, click here.