Pretty Brain Blobs and a Facebook Antidote?

Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain. Since we are in an age where anything related to the brain generates instant credibility (and conforms to the rule of Blobology), I attach this. It’s published by the Harvard Business Review. Article focusses on two areas of the brain, one (anterior cingulate cortex) associated with emotional regulation, and another (hippocampus), associated with memory, emotion, resilience.

More interesting, is the work done by Judson Brewer at Yale. His research has focussed on something he calls the Default Mode Network. Basically this is the part of the brain that is active when we are doing nothing. And he has correlated that part of the brain’s activity with greater levels of unhappiness. He wanders a little farther, hinting that selfishness is part of what fuels unhappiness. Here’s a (pretty long) quote from an interview Brewer did at Buddhist Geeks.

 And we were a little surprised when we analyzed the data. We didn’t see much activity in the brain like increased activity in experienced meditators but we saw some specific brain regions that had deactivation patterns.  And when we looked more closely at this, it was fascinating.

We were pleasantly surprised to see that two of the main brain regions that were deactivated, and on whole there were only four or five that survived statistical thresholds, but two of those were part of the default mode network. And the default mode network is particularly interesting because it’s all about me….

And so this default mode network, it’s called the default mode network because it was discovered to be active when people were just laying still and they were doing this “controlled” task of don’t do anything in particular. Well guess what we don’t do in particular when we’re not doing anything in particular. What we’re doing is we’re thinking about ourselves, all the time.

….this actually is present about 50% of our waking lives. So there’s a study in Harvard that’s well-known now done by Matt Killingsworth where they probed people throughout the day and they found that 50% of the time people’s minds were wandering.

And typically when they were wandering they weren’t very happy. And typically it’s this self-referential stuff.  There was a more recent study that just came out this year in the proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences where somebody actually gave people a choice of monetary reward or to disclose about themselves. Guess what they chose?  [laughter]

Yes. They would rather talk about themselves than earn money. And in fact when they imaged people that were doing this, their self-referential default mode network was activated and also the reward centers of the brain, the nucleus accumbens was activated.

So it’s rewarding to talk about yourself which is probably why Facebook is worth $100 billion or $50 billion or whatever it’s worth now. It’s worth all this money because it provides 1. You get to talk about yourself. What am I doing? Here’s pictures of me. There’s this and that. It also provides gossip and gossip is sticky. What are other people doing?

And it also does this in an intermittent reinforcement fashion which is the most reinforcing type of learning. So it happens at random times. You don’t know. It’s not on a regular schedule.  So all of that is many tangents away from the original question which is why are interested in the default mode network and why we’re so excited to see deactivation in the default mode network in experienced meditators.

So, maybe there is hope for freedom from Facebook, after all.

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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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