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.
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