Default Network Mode

Doing nothing?  Daydreaming?  Your brain is still working away

Neuroscientists have discovered that brain activity occurs in “networks”: a coherent interaction of different brain regions. The networks are activated harmoniously or cooperatively, depending on what you are doing.  One network, connecting several different brain regions, becomes activated when we are at rest, doing “nothing” or just daydreaming.  This has been dubbed the “default mode network.”  Another, called the “salience network,” detects when something in the environment requires our attention.  Then it comes “online,” which causes the default network to back off temporarily.  Later, when nothing important is going on, the salience network steps back, and the brain goes back into default mode.

Scientists have begun to identify other networks in the brain that are activated for some tasks and not others. The study of brain networks is still in its infancy, although it has generated a lot of interest. In fact,  since the publication of “A Default Mode of Brain Function” (Raichle et al. 2001), nearly 3,000 papers have been published on this topic; of these papers, a large percentage look at the question of how these networks work or fail to work when someone is depressed, manic, or anxious, etcetera.  

Depending on the person’s emotional state, the default mode network can be activated differently. While this might not make intuitive sense, it is because we have different ways of spending time when we are not focused on a task. We can be anxious and worrying, or we can be daydreaming with pleasant fantasies. If we are anxious, then the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (a specific part of the default mode network) shows higher activity at rest (we may not be doing anything, but we are worrying rather than daydreaming). In addition, when we are given a specific task, if we are anxious, that part of the default mode network remains activated (we don’t stop this activity when we switch to task mode, which aligns with the observation that anxiety interferes with the brain activity needed to complete tasks 

The takeaway

So what, right?  If neuroscientists don’t fully understand what’s going on, how could we do anything to fix our own brain networks?  Well, help is available from what initially seems to be an unrelated area:  mindfulness.  Clinicians like ourselves have been getting good results from training patients in mindfulness techniques, and the whole area is becoming more widely known and accepted even among insurers, who may sometimes offer in-network mindfulness training.  Now, research is beginning to show how mindfulness works based on the new discoveries about brain networks.

In a 2022 study of depressed patients, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was found to decrease salience network connectivity, which led to people moving their attention from ruminative thinking to greater body awareness of real-time sensation.  In other words, mindfulness training teaches you skills in controlling your attention towards present body awareness, which allows you to recognize, decenter, and disengage from negative ruminative patterns.  This means that we can, in fact, have some control over the activity of our brain networks once we learn the skills for directing them.

Here are some more materials from MoodSurfing about mindfulness’s great benefits:

Mindfulness changes brain connections.

Mindfulness goes mainstream

Mindfulness and health



Raichle ME, MacLeod AM, Snyder AZ, Powers WJ, Gusnard DA, Shulman GL. 2001.”A default mode of brain function.” PNAS 98:676–82

Raichle, Marcus E. “The Brain’s Default Mode Network.” Annual review of neuroscience 38.1 (2015): 433–447. Web.

Mindfulness Training Changes Brain Dynamics During Depressive Rumination: A Randomized Controlled Trial.  Anne Maj van der Velden, et al. Biological Psychiatry.  Elsevier: 1 Feb. 2023. DOI: