Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Default Mode Network, Meditation, & Mindfulness

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36 Responses

  1. Lane says:

    Thank you for this. As I’m taking the U. of Mass. Medical School Stress Clinic MBSR Course, your explanation is so very helpful. Again, I’m sharing it with my friends.

    • I’m so glad to hear this Lane! And what a wonderful course to be taking. The original mindfulness project that inspired this blog was based off of Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR course. Dr. Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues have a great way of simplifying what can feel like a complex topic into practical steps that lead to real change. Thanks again for your comment and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.
      ~ Matthew

  2. saijanai says:

    Extremely high activation of the DMN is also associated with “pure consciousness” during Transcendental Meditation.

    • Very interesting! As you mentioned in our email conversation:
      “TM (Transcendental meditation) is described as allowing the mind to wander, so the fact that the EEG signature of TM is very similar to “mind wandering” and that the brain activity is as well, shouldn’t be either.”
      The article you provided,, was also very interesting. Thank you for your enthusiasm and for sharing your knowledge about meditation.
      ~ Matthew

  3. How does this square with Dr Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience of left and right brain?
    See her TED talk

    • Michael,
      Thank you for your interest. I am familiar with Dr. Bolte Taylor’s book but not familiar enough to comment at this time. How do you feel like this squares the her experience? I will follow up when I have time to examine her work in more detail.

  4. Another nice post on this topic. The connections between the Default Mode Network and the Task Positive Network are very interesting and this confirms experiential observations I’ve made over the years.

  5. troybryden says:

    Hi Matthew! literally one of the best articles I have ever read (pull together and explained many concepts much better then my university lecturers did)

    Im confused on one aspect however. Recently I read a journal article, basically suggesting that periods of mindfulness meditation provided a space for diminished blood glucose levels to replenish (as previously depleted from an activity). So I was under the impression (as confirmed by experience) that living a mindful lifestyle is a lifestyle which allows for glucose to replenish and for your energy levels to be generally higher (as when you get caught in DMN spirals, it really is draining). However, I have always thought that the TPN which is responsible for active tasks would consume more energy.

    I guess I was under the impression that both the TPN uses a lot of energy and I thought that projecting into the future, reflecting on the past and general rumination, would be part of this energy burning networking, where as mindfulness is more of a ‘resting’ non attending and simply ‘being state’. (clearly this isn’t the case as this article describes) But I’m just having a little bit of trouble reconciling in my mind, how a mindful state replenishes energy when it is TPN that is active. Or am I thinking about this wrong, such as , certain aspects of the task-positive network are draining, but other aspects are not? Because when you are tactically planning on a physical schedule the next day or reading through dense material I feel although the TPN would be active, although these two activities can be very mentally exhausting.

    Looking forward to hearing your insight,

    • Thank you for your comments and I’m so glad you enjoyed the article.

      The brain consumes glucose as its primary energy source almost exclusively in most situations (there are exceptions that involve ketones, but we won’t consider this). In a relatively physically sedentary state the brain consumes about 60% of the body’s glucose intake. To your question, there is actually very little (if any) difference in glucose consumption in the brain during willful mental activity and so-called resting state.

      This question addresses a key component of the DMN-TPN puzzle. Both systems are necessary for our daily lives. The calming effects of the TPN engagement that can be achieved through meditation have more to do with the parasympathetic nervous system than with glucose consumption. Also, it’s important to remember that neither is the TPN “good,” nor the DMN “bad.” The balance between the two is a dynamic relationship.

      I hope this began to answer the question. Thank you again for reading and I am so glad that you enjoyed the article!

      • Troy says:

        Thanks a lot for your andwer!

        I will definately continue to read up on the latest literature.

        For months I have not even bothered to try convincing my friends to meditate, however after sharing this article with them they are easily able to see the real benefits and are able to see the scientific benefit to meditation and detach from an image of it as an almost purely spiritual practise.

        Keep up the good work!


  6. Andrew Lowry says:

    Howdy Matthew–

    This article was discussed in a Zen talk given at the Rochester Zen Center, which I listened to as a podcast. The speaker was Wayman Kubicka and it’s dated 09/12/2015. I was intrigued enough to track down your site and am enjoying reading through it, and would like to thank you for taking the time to write and post your various observations and explanations.

    Here’s the URL for the podcast:

    • Andrew,

      Thank you for sharing this with me! How humbled I feel to have been included in a Zen talk! It was great to listen to and wonderful to know that this article has helped clarify how the proposed physiology behind mindfulness lends itself to the reality of the practice. Again, I can’t tell you how much this means to me that you took the time to track my site down and share this piece of information!

  7. Hello . Thank you SO much for this. I’m working on a presentation for work on the benefits of meditation and I think this is going to be very helpful!!!

    I know you say that these two systems are mutually exclusive, but I wonder… In the case of long term meditators if they start to integrate at all. I say this bc I think I operate from TPN most of the time and I have found when I engage in certain activities (like memory recall) that are needed for something like writing that the information is just there and I don’t have to “think” about it…. Or maybe the TPN can activate regions of the brain typically associated with the DMN? Have you read Heen & Stone’s “Thanks for the Feedback”? They talk about developing a type of emotional awareness such that you’re noticing your own emotional reactions during a conflict… That sounds like the TPN, but it is info associated with DMN regions that makes this info relevant… So was curious how these regions might work together in such a case?

    • Thanks for reading and great questions! I’m not sure I’ll be able to answer them completely, but I will do my best. The article may make it seem like the DMN and TPN are antagonistic, but for all intents and purposes they are unaware of each other’s (or their own) existence. I make an argument that the modern mind tends to be more heavily weighted on the DMN side of things, but this is not to say that the DMN is bad while the TPN is good. Both serve their own purpose and are necessary for survival. I would hypothesize that rather than integration between networks advanced meditators become more dextrous in their ability to switch between networks. After all, the DMN is fine until we use it to ruminate, self-blame, or worry. I haven’t ready “Thanks for the Feedback” but I’m going to put it on my list. Thanks again for reading!

  8. Steve says:

    I’ve been to a few guided meditation sessions in the past year. I didn’t really understand the purpose of a lot of the stuff they said, like concentrating on the present and different areas of the body while letting go of feelings and thoughts about the past. I recently met someone who has a degree or two in the neurosciences who also practices meditation; this person explained some things about DMN/TPN and what is actually happening to the brain, but I still had some questions. This article helped fill in some of the blanks. Thank you!

    Skiing and mountain biking aggressively seem to help me in similar ways to guided meditation. I guess careening over moguls and through trees at high speeds is pretty effective at cranking up the TPN out of necessity to preserve life and limb.

  9. Lou says:

    Hi I enjoyed this article, thank you! I am finding that I seem to have the opp problem to that which most people in meditation classes seem to have. They seemed to be complaining of a lot of rumination and a busy mind. I found that I couldn’t really see anything in my mind and quite easily stick to focusing on breathing. Is this common? Love to hear your thoughts on how meditation works in this context in terms of these networks.
    Thank you

    • So glad that you enjoyed the article! As to your absence of thoughts and uninterrupted focus on your breath, I’m not sure I have an explanation for it but it seems fortunate as this is oftentimes very difficult for those new to meditation (as well as more experienced)

  10. old enough to need dark print says:

    Please change the font so that it is darker. This blog is nearly impossible to read.

    • I’m so sorry to hear this, I can’t change the color of the print without re-writing the code but maybe zooming in on the page will increase the contrast as the font is black on a white background and should become easier to read with magnification. Let me know if this doesn’t work and I can send you the articles in a word document so that you can adjust them as needed. Thanks for reading!

  11. Alvin says:

    Wonderful article! I have one question: our DMN and TPN are mutually exclusive, but how feasible is it/what does it take to convert the DMN from being a ruminator to being positively oriented? To make it automatically positive oriented Of course there is the neuroplasticity factor which allows this progressive change, but are there any specific variables or case studies specific to this question?

  12. Hunter Christian Davis says:

    Would it be counterproductive to practice non directive meditation and also focus meditation? I know that our brains are live wiring all of the time. I have had issues with poor working memory and overactivity in my DMN causing a host of psychological ailments. I have been doing 30 minutes of mindfulness meditation for 21 days now and feel my short term memory and dopamine have improved markedly. But I have also seen many studies suggesting that non directive meditation is the best form of meditation for general stress relief and emotional processing, which I would also like to take advantage of. Would non directive meditation continue to contribute to my overactive DMN, or are there different functional connections in the DMN that active when healthfully processing emotions rather than ruminating in negative ones? You also discussed being able to read emotional expressions from others. As my TPN gets stronger will I have a lesser ability to gauge another persons emotions? Last questions would be overall, would it be possible to practice both meditations and harness the flexibility of my mind to have a strong working memory when I need it, and to be utilizing my DMN for positive emotional processing and spontaneous creativity?Thanks

    • Matthew says:

      Thank you for reading and I appreciate the interesting questions. I’m afraid I may not have many specific answers for your questions. However, the mind is an amazingly flexible and dexterous organ and can utilize any and all inputs to grow and change. You may enjoy your meditation practice more if you can let go of some of your specific goals and expectations. Mindfulness practice is an organic process that we take part in rather than direct. All the best!

  13. Anny Ortiz says:

    Is the TPN you speak of the same as CEN (Central Executive Network)? Thank you for your help with understanding this.

    • Matthew says:

      For the intents and purposes of understanding the dynamic relationship between the DMN and the TPN, yes the CEN can be thought of as roughly equivalent. The CEN and associated concepts are more nuanced than this and very interesting to study if you have the time. Here’s a great article about it:
      Bressler, S. L., & Menon, V. (2010). Large-scale brain networks in cognition: emerging methods and principles. Trends in cognitive sciences, 14(6), 277-290.

  14. Curt Eastin says:

    Hey Matthew! I’ve been reading your stuff here, on Neuraptitude and PT. Really enjoy your writing. I’m trying to figure out if the TPN is the same thing as Kelly McGonigal refers to as the “experiential system” of the brain. She talks about how meditation affects the “experiential system” (maybe TPN?) and the “evaluation system” (she defines as the default – maybe DMN?). I’m just trying to put all the pieces together and wonder if you’re familiar with that language. Thanks!

    • Matthew says:

      Hey Curt,
      Thanks so much for reading and for your support. I am aware of the excellent and interesting work that Dr. McGonigal is doing, but I am not specifically aware of her work on the “experiential” or “evaluation” systems. Your suggested parallel seems plausible, but unfortunately I am unable to clarify beyond this. If you learn anymore or if I discover anything pertinent to this question let’s repost in this forum. Thanks again!

  15. a j mnarr says:

    A New Variant of Mindfulness based on Affective Neuroscience

    Presented here a new and radical variant of mindfulness, which I call ‘mindfulness with meaning’. It is derived from the work of the distinguished neuroscientist Dr. Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who has vetted and endorsed my argument. The procedure that follows in the linked little book below (pp. 24, 28, 40-42), is novel, short, succinct, simple and easily testable. The book is written in two parts, for a lay and professional audience, and contains links to articles published in professional journals by this author that further elaborate my position. Since the procedure is simple and innocuous, you may prove its efficacy to yourself through personal trial quite easily. This would reduce the risk of a null result if you applied it clinically, which as with all new hypotheses, is a distinct possibility.

    Below is my argument in a nutshell:

    Individuals who engage in tasks in which they perceive a consistent and high degree of present and anticipated novel and positive outcomes or ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity, doing productive work) commonly report a feeling of high alertness and arousal that may be construed to be due to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, a significant subset of these individuals also report a feeling of pleasure that is characteristic of opioid release, but these reports occur only in non-stressed situations when the musculature is relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid and dopamine systems stimulate each other, the resulting blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that are very easily achieved. In this way, which engages both mindfulness and an active sense of meaning, both dopamine and opioid release can be increased in the brain, and dramatically increase the efficacy of mindfulness.

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    […] If you are glass half empty person you are not alone. I recently learnt about the Default Mode Network (DMN) which I found very insightful. The DMN is a set of brain structures that represent our mental state of inattention; times when we are not exercising, interacting with the external environment, or having a conversation. An example would be when we first wake up in the morning. The most common culprits of this state of mental unrest are anxiety and depression (over past, present, or future events) or obsessionality (Neuroscience of Mindfulness). […]

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