How do you feel when you can’t pay attention to a pressing task because your mind is wandering somewhere else? How do you keep at bay those repetitive, circular and mostly negative thoughts that often cloud your mind? To master how to FOCUS YOUR ATTENTION, let’s begin understanding the Default Mode Network!

What is the Default Mode Network?

The default mode network is the brain network that’s active when you are not focused on the external world/stimuli. It consists of brain regions including the angular gyrus, posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus, and medial prefrontal cortex.

The default mode network was first identified by the neuroscientist Marcus Raichle in the early 2000s. While taking images of people’s brains, the activity in certain brain regions increased during tasks. But to his surprise, the brain activity in other brain regions decreased. He called these regions “task negative” regions. He then noted that when people were at rest, the brain activity in those “task negative” regions increased. In fact, these regions used up to 90% of the brain’s energy. As a result, he called this activity “a default mode of brain activity.”

The default mode network plays a key role in mind wandering, such as judging current or past experiences, planning, or imagining the future. While these functions may seem unrelated, the neuroscientist Vinod Menon has proposed that the default mode network integrates these functions to create an internal narrative that reflects our individual experiences. This narrative helps us have a sense of self and shapes how we perceive ourselves, as well as how we interact with others.

Dysregulation of the Default Mode Network

Occasional mind wandering, a key cornerstone of the default mode network is normal and can be beneficial. When your mind wander, the default mode network facilitates idea generation, which can support the task-oriented Executive Control Network, the region that’s active when you are engaged with the external world. However, when your mind wanders too much due to the overactivity of the default mode network, problems arise.

For instance, an overactive default mode network can give rise to negative forms of thinking such as rumination (a key hallmark of depression), worry, and self-criticism. Also, an overactive default mode network has been linked to conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.

How to modulate the Default Mode Network

Fortunately, there is much you can do to modulate the activity of the default mode network, and thus control mind wandering:

Employing cognitive strategies

As humans, we appear to be hardwired for negativity. In fact, statistics show that 80% of our thoughts are negative. To counter negative forms of thinking, you can challenge your negative thoughts by questioning how real or accurate they are. Then you can replace your negative thoughts with more accurate and uplifting thoughts. For instance, if you’re afraid you’ll get an “F” on an exam, but in the past, you’ve always gotten an “A” on exams, you can replace your fear of getting an “F” with the more realistic thought that you’ll get an “A.” In other words, YOU are not your thoughts!

Practicing mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness and mindful framing have been shown time and time again to downregulate the activity of the default mode network, not only during the practice but also over time. These practices involve focusing on the present moment without judgment. They are usually practiced alongside breathing exercises and visualization. Meta-analyses have shown that to get the benefit of reduced mind wandering, you should practice mindfulness for at least two weeks.

Breathing mindfully

Struggling with a wandering mind? Take a couple deep breaths. Breathing exercises can reduce the activity of the default mode network, and result in you being more present in the moment. Breathing exercises also improve attention and memory recall. Here are some  deep breathing exercises you can try.


Exercise isn’t just good for the body, it’s also good for the mind. Regular exercise, in particular aerobic exercise, can downregulate the default mode network by fostering an alert, focused state of mind. For instance, when you go for a walk, you get to take a break from your thoughts, clear your mind, and simply relax. When you return to pressing tasks, you’re more focused and productive. As a bonus, you also get a boost of feel-good endorphins.

Interacting socially

You are who you surround yourself with. Being with negative people stimulates negative judgments and thoughts. That’s because negative people usually project their negativity on others. It’s best to surround yourself with positive people. Not only will their positivity rub off on you, but also by interacting with them, you’ll be able to assume alternative points of view for your problems and disengage from ruminative thinking/problem-solving.

In the busyness of life, we may let your mind wander and get lost in negative trains of thought. By modulating your wandering mind, you will not only optimize your productivity but also enhance enjoyment of the present moment for yourself and those around you.

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