Have you ever been driving home from work or school, only to find yourself at your house with the question going through your head “how in the world did I get home?” or doing routine tasks such as brushing your teeth, combing your hair, and getting dressed without having to put thought, or effort to accomplish these tasks? This experience is referred to as “using muscle memory”, or being in “autopilot mode”. However, in neuroscience, there is a more official term called default mode.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend an advanced Neurofeedback training course in Salt Lake City. Dr. Ed Hamlin, neuropsychologist and consultant at Avalon Hills, instructed the course. Learning about human “default mode” was the main focus of the course. Dr. Hamlin asked the class members to close their eyes and focus on counting their breaths. As I participated, I started off the challenge without problem. All my focus was making sure I was counting in and out along with my breath. However, it didn’t take much time for my mind to wander about tasks that I needed to accomplish by the end of the day, and other jumbled thoughts that lead me away from the challenge given to me. It actually didn’t take me long to almost completely forget the purpose of having my eyes closed. When time was called for the group to reopen their eyes, I found I was not alone in my failure to continuously count my breathing. Dr. Hamlin smiled, and stated simply, “wherever your mind took you just now, consider that your default mode.” He went further to explain that our minds rarely are able to focus on one task at a time, a consequence of overplanned days, and our inability to let our minds rest. That is why doing mundane and routine tasks like driving home, doing our hair, and even breathing become times when we don’t actually think about the action at hand. Rather, our minds flood with our busy checklists, future planning, and past thinking instead of being present when doing tasks throughout the day.
Dr. Hamlin explained that an average person spends around 30% of their day in this default mode setting. An example for understanding this can described as a puppy learning how to stay when called upon to do so. All focus is in for a few fleeting moments before the puppy decides to get up again, disregarding the simple task that was asked of it a few moments ago. This is our brain, and as Dr. Hamlin describes, “you are in your zombie mode”. Starting and finishing tasks without remembering the middle part. Driving home only to be filled with racing thoughts of what needs to be done, or what has been done. Being physically present in a classroom, but not hearing a word the professor is saying. All these actions lead up into a life that is both missed, and unfulfilled. We are participators, but are we really participating? The zombie mode can sometimes overtake us, making us feel like our day-or even our life has just flashed by us.
Dr. Hamlin didn’t leave all hope lost, and explained that there is a way to increase presence and move away from Zombie Mode. This specific process is referred to as activating your executive functioning network. Operating from the executive functioning network allows the brain to make decisions, problem solve, focus, and gain knowledge through life experiences. Dr. Hamlin explains that “If you’re in default mode, you can’t learn, gain, or achieve anything new. The only way you can do so is by being in your executive control network.”
This really got me thinking, what have I been missing by being in my default mode? Conversations with friends and family, work, or school? Opportunities to learn and grow lost without me even knowing there was a chance to gain? This was a powerful experience in my own life as well as in shaping how I train and interact with our patients in my role as Neurofeedback technician at Avalon Hills. Specifically, this understanding of what is happening to me on a daily basis created an awareness of how I can start to de-zombie myself and help others do the same. Dr. Hamlin went on to teach that getting into your executive function is actually rather simple. Examples given were if there was particular way you drive home, take the back route. If there is a task at hand that you’ve done it a million times, try it a different way. Start integrating mindfulness into your daily schedule such as meditating, yoga, mindfulness walks, turning off cellphones, and other electronic devices. The more times you spend in a day training your brain to be present, the more progress you’ll see. It’s a slow and gentle process to start being aware of your wandering mind. However, the knowledge of gaining awareness through daily practices can help you gain a different perspective of life. It’ll seem unusual, or even uncomfortable at times, however, the more our minds are able to stay in the executive function network, the more we are to stop our zombie mode, and help us get into our zone.