A Wandering Mind May Hold the Key to a Healthy Sense of Self

There are plenty of times when the work of neuroscientists, while interesting, is a bit too scientific to be helpful for the very real emotional and psychological issues that therapists and counselors help their clients with on a day-to-day level. But recent research into something called the “default mode network” offers insight into both the mechanics of the brain and the personal mental landscape of every day people. The default mode network, as reported in the L.A. Times, refers to how the brain spends its time when it’s not focused on specific tasks. Essentially, it’s mental down-time, and it used to be disregarded as irrelevant to study of how the brain works.

But this down-time is anything but empty. Brain imagine has shown that after completing a task, the task-oriented parts of the brain relaxes; as the mind begins to wander, a different network takes over. This is the default mode network: the network of thoughts that are our ‘default’ when other work is not required of us. When this network is activated, we reflect on the past, ruminate about the future, analyze our relationships with others, anticipate upcoming interactions, and run through the steps of past or planned activities. When these things converge, we are mapping out the way our world works: how we feel, how we fit in with the people around us, and how we expect others to behave based on past experiences. In short, we are exploring and reinforcing our own sense of self.

This research means several things for the mental health community. First and foremost, it illustrates how important mental down time can be for one’s own psychological well-being. Not allowing ourselves any quiet time with our own thoughts is much like not letting the body get enough sleep. In addition, brain scans also show that some people’s psychological struggles (such as depression) slightly disrupt the default mode network. When dealing with depression, we may literally not have a balanced sense of self, which can explain why it is sometimes hard to feel grounded and confident in overcoming the depressive thoughts. While this research may not change the way psychotherapists help clients with specific emotional needs, it may change the way we look at down time. Rather than a waste of time, it may be essential to our personal resilience and sense of self.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Matt


    September 1st, 2010 at 9:09 AM

    Excellent article. I’m inclined to agree, too. I usually feel better when I allow myself some downtime to write, doodle, or sit around and think. The brain needs planned rest periods, and a few hours of sleep isn’t enough to cover it.

  • daniel


    September 1st, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    wow…our brain sure is a very efficient piece of technology! its doing some work even when it is seemingly idle!
    and yes,this way of the mind relaxing and unwinding seems like a god way for it to get away from the ‘heavy’ thinking and decision-making procedures ;)

  • Aidan


    September 1st, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    And when you take into account today’s world overflowing with gadgets to keep us occupied, it explains why so many with so much still feel so lost. They aren’t allowing themselves to have that downtime.

  • Brian


    September 1st, 2010 at 7:05 PM

    All great writers know when you reflect and ruminate, your work becomes much better. That’s why we are encouraged to sleep on a problem. It gives us time to allow our subconscious to help us.

  • kenny


    September 1st, 2010 at 7:35 PM

    the amazing thing, but something that can be disadvantageous to therapists is that no two people’s minds react in the exact same way when in the exact same situation.

    this would make their job tougher because every case is a new one for them,even if the person is having the same problem.but this is also what actually sets each one of us apart,doesn’t it?

  • Paula


    September 2nd, 2010 at 4:45 AM

    I want to make a copy of this and take in to my bosses today. . . tell them I need more mental down time for my well being. Wonder how that would go over hehehe

  • Eve


    September 3rd, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    I get my best ideas when I’m doing something that requires no concentration, like dusting. I can’t count how many times solutions to problems just float to the surface of my mind when I’m doing a simple task.

  • Tex


    September 3rd, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    Reverie is a word you never hear much. I think that’s what this article’s referring to. We have too many distractions now that would be better put aside to allow us to discover how to lose yourself in thought again.

  • katie


    September 3rd, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    I think some people like to be always doing something precisely because they don’t want to think about themselves and their lives any deeper than they have to.

  • Marian


    September 4th, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    You cannot speed your inner growth without inner reflection. Without giving your mind the time and space to do that, you’re holding yourself back. There’s only so much any amount of therapy or self improvement books can do for you. Your mind and thoughts have to be active participants too on the road to recovery.

  • Val


    September 4th, 2010 at 6:49 PM

    The brain is immensely powerful and we tap into only a fraction of that power. Give your brain room to play and daydream then watch your creativity go through the roof. It’s all in there. You just need to open the door to letting it out. Don’t flood your mind with non-essential activity all day and night.

  • Wanderer


    September 4th, 2010 at 10:14 PM

    Reverie is not a mind vacuum. It is rather the gift of an hour which knows the plenitude of the soul. – Gaston Bachelard

  • Andrew


    September 6th, 2010 at 12:19 PM

    I know two middle aged sisters that are on numerous committees, always rushing from one meeting to the next. I can see right through them. They don’t have any true friends because they don’t know how to be a friend. They understand themselves so little that they can’t give of themselves to others. How can you give when you don’t know what you’ve got? So they fill their days with being busy, cloaking the emptiness inside. Their brains need that downtime to find out who they really are. Then maybe people will like them more and want to get to know them as friends, not acquaintances

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