What is the Default Mode Network’s Link to Mental Health?

By Rishi Sood, MD

Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming in class or while doing your homework? Maybe you were thinking about what to do over the weekend or replaying a fun moment with your friends. It turns out there’s a special part of your brain at work during these times—the default mode network (DMN).

This network is like a team of brain regions that activates when you’re not focusing on the outside world but instead, you’re reflecting on your thoughts, memories, and emotions.

The DMN also plays a role in anxiety and depression, as well as in the ability to focus. In this blog, you’ll discover problems with the DMN that are associated with mental health disorders and what you can do to support this brain system to enhance your mental well-being.

The default mode network is like a team of brain regions that activates when you're not focusing on the outside world but instead, you're reflecting on your thoughts, memories, and emotions. Click To Tweet

WHAT IS THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK?

The default mode network is one of the most exciting discoveries to emerge from functional brain-imaging research. Marcus Raichle, MD, first coined the term for this fascinating brain system in 2001 when he found that certain parts of the brain lit up on brain scans while the brain was not engaged in specific tasks.

Basically, the DMN is a group of areas in your brain that work together when you’re lost in thought. Your resting brain includes several regions, such as:

  • Medial prefrontal cortex, located behind your forehead
  • Posterior cingulate cortex, situated near the middle of your brain

These brain regions activate when you reminisce about your past, imagine the future, or consider other people’s perspectives. Think of the DMN as the human brain’s autopilot. It’s at work in the background while your mind wanders.

When you’re engaged in a specific task, such as solving a math problem, other brain networks take over, and the DMN quiets down.

THE DMN AND DAYDREAMING

Brain-imaging research indicates that the DMN is involved in daydreaming. You may think that daydreaming is a waste of time or a way to escape from what we’re doing. It isn’t. Mind wandering helps us process our feelings and experiences.

It’s as if your brain is using this quiet time to sort through everything you’ve learned and felt. Ultimately, daydreaming helps you understand more about yourself and the world around you.

Some neuroimaging studies show that daydreaming can also lead to creativity or out-of-the-box thinking.  That’s not all. A 2021 study in the journal Emotion found that letting your mind wander can boost your mood.

Plus, we can thank a team of researchers from Harvard, Yale, and other universities for discovering that mind wandering isn’t a productivity zapper. In fact, these scientists found that daydreaming can improve productivity.

So, the next time your lost in thought, don’t feel like you have to interrupt the flow. Enjoy it.

THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK AND MENTAL HEALTH

While daydreaming and reflecting are important, the DMN’s activity is also linked to our mental health. In a systematic review in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review, researchers found that when the DMN is too active or not active enough at certain times, it may relate to mental health conditions.

Let’s take a closer look at how it relates to some of the most common mental health disorders.

  • Depression: In people experiencing clinical depression, the DMN can be overly active when they’re resting, according to research. This means their brain might be getting stuck on sad or negative thoughts. This type of rumination is like a record player skipping and repeating the same gloomy song.

 

  • Anxiety: In people who often feel anxious, the DMN may be overactivated. This hyperconnectivity can make them worry too much about the future or regret things from the past. It’s as if the brain is constantly running “what if” scenarios that increase anxiety disorders.

 

  • ADHD: In attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also called attention-deficit disorder (ADD), the DMN may not calm down enough when it’s time to focus, according to a 2021 study. This can make it hard for someone to pay attention in school or at work because their mind keeps wandering to other thoughts.

 

  • Schizophrenia: A growing body of functional neuroimaging research shows that the DMN is strongly associated with schizophrenia. In particular, hyperactivity of the DMN may be related to the disordered thinking, delusions, and impaired perception seen in the condition.

 

  • Autism: In scientific studies, the DMN has been implicated in the social cognitive deficits seen in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Some research points to underconnectivity in the DMN in those with autism.

 

 

Researchers have indicated that functional brain imaging may be a valuable tool in detecting early signs of Alzheimer’s. Some experts suggest that imaging the brain at rest while the DMN should be activated may be especially helpful in identifying dementia.

HOW TO SUPPORT THE DEFAULT MODE NETWORK

Understanding the role of the DMN can help us find better ways to support our mental health. Here are a few strategies:

  • Mindfulness and meditation: Practices like mindfulness or meditation help train your brain to regulate the activity of the DMN. This can mean better control over your thoughts and emotions.

 

  • Healthy habits: Regular exercise, good sleep, and a healthy diet support overall brain function and can help the DMN work more effectively.

 

  • Talking about it: Discussing your thoughts and feelings with others can also keep the DMN in check. Whether it’s with friends, family, or a counselor, talking helps you process roaming thoughts in a healthy way.

The default mode network plays a big part in how we think and feel about ourselves and the world. By learning more about it and how it affects our mental health, we can take steps to keep our minds healthy and vibrant.

Whether it’s through science, therapy, or daily habits, understanding our brains helps us lead happier lives.

Anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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