Mental Chatter is the Mind’s Default Mode

There are parts of your brain that register and process various types of experience, and another that narrates it. In default mode, they activate almost at the same time. You can train your brain not to do this, allowing you to process experiences without the intrusion of the inner monologue.

The brain’s default mode is linked to the Task Negative Network. When this area of the brain is active, the mind wanders, there is no clarity of focus and the Narrator reigns supreme. These areas of the brain are involved in self-referencing, ruminating about past or future events and understanding other people’s emotions. 

In this default state, you experience a near constant stream of commentary by the voice in your head, the Narrator. It’s interesting that most people I talk to hold the belief that, though the Narrator is annoying at times, this voice represents their own thought process and is necessary to “think about things” in order to get stuff done. They can’t imagine being a functioning person without it. 

Sure, they might experience some moments of quiet, but these are extraordinary, and rare. Maybe they experience ten minutes of this inner quiet during a 30 minute daily meditation practice. It’s very refreshing, but has nothing to do with real life.

Chances are, you have experienced being fully alert, doing important real world activities without being in default mode, without being subject to the Narrator’s interference. When in such flow states, all mental chatter ceases. All data irrelevant to the present moment’s activity vanishes, and the sense of self-as-persona subsides.

Flow states can be experienced when you sustain deep focus on an activity or task for a substantial period of time, and become totally engrossed in what you are doing. This can also be induced when there is grave danger — some people go immediately into panic mode, while others find they’ve suddenly dropped into a preternatural calm. Their mind is silent and clear, time dilates and they find they are responding with heightened clarity and efficiency, all emotion, mind chatter and self-referencing is absent. 

The Task Negative Network (or Default Network) specifically inhibits flow states, and has been shown to reactivate within a fraction of a second after you disengage from the activity which induced a flow state. That’s why it’s called Default…it’s always there and ready to spring back into action whenever there is an opening. And this mental rumination seems to lead to feelings of unhappiness, anxiety and dissatisfaction. 

What I find most interesting is that, with practice, you can change the baseline of your default mode. For instance, dedicated mediators show less activity in the Task Negative Network, even when they are not involved in an engrossing task. Over time, they’ve trained their minds to be less distracted and less reactive. 

Simply establishing a daily practice of calling back a wandering mind to neutral, present moment attention can alter your default state. I cannot overstate how powerful it is to master your focus — to train yourself to redirect your attention at will. 

While I was a meditator and I think a meditation practice is extremely good for health, both mental and physical, I trained myself to do this outside of the meditative state, in real time, so to speak. 

One of the benefits is being able to be fully present for the experiences of life, without being controlled by them. I talk a lot in the Peerless Series about gaining ground, or creating space. When you have space between you and whatever appears, whether it’s pain or pleasure or something in between, you can maintain more awareness in the moment and choose your position and response, rather than getting caught up and becoming reactive. There is a moment between whatever you experience and your response to it, and your power of choice is in that moment. Space gives you that moment. Neutrality gives you that moment. Mastering your attention gives you that moment. Mental chatter fills that moment and it is lost

In that moment so much can happen. In that space, you can discern whether or not you even need to be involved, or to what degree. You can experience the sensations in your body (what reactive people would call emotions, cravings, pain) and see them as just that — body sensations, without the story. 

Your default mode is this: the area of your brain that creates mental chatter and the area of your brain that evaluates and processes physical sensations fire together, so that the minute you feel sensations, your mind starts talking to you about it. You think this is completely normal and the only way minds work. You experience something and simultaneously, your mind tells you the story about it. 

That’s default, but it’s not the only way your mind can work. The parts of your brain that evaluate and process whatever experience you are having, can operate independent of the part of your brain that produces all that commentary. They are different parts of the brain, and their activity can be seen on brain scans. 

To summarize, in default mode the Narrator part of the brain is running all the time, especially when you are not in a deeply focused state. It also fires simultaneously with other parts of the brain, even though it’s totally unnecessary and adds nothing to your ability to process your experience. You can learn to weaken the default activity of this part of your brain and keep it from activating automatically.

Is it easy or quick? No.

Is it worth the effort? 

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