Focus and Mind Wandering – The Default Mode Network
Cultivating ‘flow’ depends not only on task-focused intelligence, but also on relaxed mind-wandering, reflection, free association and creativity. This is mediated by the ‘default mode’ network in the brain while flow is mediated by the ‘task-positive’ network.
Flow defined: Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
Focus and Mind Wandering Brain Networks
Brain imaging studies have revealed a fascinating ‘yin-yang’ aspect to our mental lives: two large-scale brain networks that work in opposing ways – as one increases in activity, the other decreases, and vice versa:
- A task focused network involving focused attention and mental effort – the type of cognition deployed when we work to solve problems, make decisions or pursue goal. This is the brain in gear. This is the network
- A resting, mind wandering network that throws up spontaneous associations and is related to day-dreaming, and personal, introspective thinking and imagining. This is the brain in neutral.
The NeuroAnatomy of the Networks
The brain regions making up the focus and mind wandering networks can be seen in this diagram of the brain, coded blue and purple. One half of the brain (a hemisphere) is shown from both the outside (lateral part) and inside (medial part). The same regions are reflected in the other half of the brain too.
The ‘Focus’ Task Positive Network (TPN)
Also known as the Cognitive Control Network or Central Executive Network this network largely overlaps with the core brain circuit underlying intelligence and problem-solving skills (the frontoparietal circuit). This network is underlies focused attention and working memory load.
The ‘Mind Wandering’ Default Mode Network (DMN)
Also known as the Task Negative Network, the DMN is involved in ‘mind-wandering’, introspective thought and perspective taking. It is the kind of mental life we have when we are not focused on anything in particular and the mind is spontaneously recollecting, drifting or day-dreaming. In a positive way it may be associated with:
“self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, …retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion” Scott Barry Kaufman, University of Pennsylvania
For a recent review of the benefits of engaging in the mind-wandering network, click here. Mindfulness meditation can effectively activate this default mode network and help induce mind wandering.
Focus and Mind Wandering…and IQ
There is an interesting relationship between intelligence level and the efficiency of engaging or disengaging with these networks:
More intelligent individuals are more efficient in deactivating the mind wandering network when they need to focus on a task, and they put more effort into cognitive control-related activity in the focus network involving working memory.
Less intelligent people tend to mind-wander with irrelevant thoughts more while they are trying to focus on a task.
However, Jonathan Smallwood and Jonathan Schooler have argued that mind wandering in the Default Mode may serve many adaptive functions – such as future planning, sorting out current concerns, cycling through different information streams, and creativity.
Focus and Mind Wandering for Cognitive Flow
The flow state depends on self-regulating your brain energy. You can achieve better brain energy homeostasis by switching regularly between focused working memory training and other cognitive challenges (activating the hormesis principle and the adaptive stress response) with mind-wandering, day-dreaming and sifting through personal experiences.
Both are critical for a broader conception of intelligence involving insight, reflection and creativity (rather than just IQ test taking), and balancing these two systems can help induce cognitive flow.