I’m cutting off all my hair because I’m anxious. I’m anxious because of the full moon, and because I watched a movie with “live protest audio” of people shouting and fighting and triggered my post-traumatic stress.
I’m in the bathroom looking back and forth between the little mirror in my hand and the big one on the wall. The cat is screaming like a kettle. She’s in heat and I won’t let her go outside. “If you won’t let me outside,” she says, “at least give me your attention!” except in gurgling yowls and screeches. She calms when I pause to pat her tiny head, but as soon as I let up she’s back on boil.
She acts the same way when I’m at my desk, glaring at my computer and glancing at my phone every ninety seconds. As do I, in fact: I trim away at feeds and notifications, carefully manscaping my personal brand.
Screens are black mirrors – obvious, I know. Through them we look at a warped world, a dark carnival fun-house where our human features are twisted out of recognition. But screens do not reflect the world entire. The anti-social media that take up so much thought are designed to prioritize the wrong metrics. Not all that is valuable can be measured, and not all that can be measured is valuable.
There’s no profit in tracking the mood of the cat. The cat does not make the buying decisions. The cat is the cat. There is no app for that.
So she roasts me in cat-speech while I absently stare at the glass. It looks no different to her whether I’m gazing at the bathroom mirror or the internet’s infinite entertainments. She sees a hypnotized, immobile shell of a man. With a bad DIY haircut.
When you want to wind down from a day of work, you reach for a screen. Right? Smartphone, game controller, TV remote if you’re old-school. Your brain wants to drift away from the tasks that the world demands of you daily. To float free in time, recall the past, guess the future, imagine being someone else. And here’s just the thing! Tweets, netflicks, posts and points and likes and shares. They slide through your hand and are gone, and your evening slips away with them.
This is not unlike what happens when your mind wanders. Resting wakefulness activates a bunch of parts of the brain, using more energy even than deep focus on a task. Collectively these parts are the Default Mode Network, or DMN, and they connect a bunch of related activities: thinking about yourself; thinking about others and what they think (and what they think about you); and “mental time travel,” where you remember the past or imagine futures.
In other words, the DMN is the ego. The persona, the identity, the “I” that is reading and reacting to these words. While you’re chilling, your brain is cleaning house. It’s putting away memories and planning new projects and rearranging the furniture of self.
(Remember, I am not a brain scientist. I am a humble letter-writing automaton. But actual brain scientists do say stuff like this about the DMN.)
The DMN is one of three main hubs in your brain. The other two networks are the attention network, which activates when you’re concentrating or making decisions, and the salience network, which switches between the other two based on judgments about incoming information.
You unlock your phone and see that river of people’s thoughts and photos and conversations – DMN material. But then there’s so many decisions to make. That’s attention network’s bailiwick. What’s a salience network to do?
Like, scroll, reply: your opportunity for internal reflection is hijacked by an obvious action pattern. I can’t find any studies on this, but I suspect that our media, laced as they are with dark patterns, actually degrade the human brain’s ability to function.
If, instead, you were to sit on the porch and stare at the street, your DMN would carry your mind away: you might remember someone you met in the park over there. You might think of a cool art project that combines your interests with your community’s needs. You might just worry about your hair.
In any case, your reflections would lead to new thoughts rather than to sponsored posts. The mind is already always chattering. The feeds are just more noise.
Is the mind always on, though? Can we silence that internal monologue that eats up so much energy? Brain scans of meditators suggest yes: the shapes of their DMNs change over time. They don’t activate as much, don’t connect as strongly. They are actually chipping away at their egos, through the psychological technology of meditation.
Mushrooms, too, change the DMN. When high on psilocybin, your ego does actually get destroyed – or at least, shut down. The DMN is inhibited, and the parts of the brain that it usually organizes are free to make new connections. The mushroom decomposes the strict ties of “this is me, that is not-me” that make up your persona. It allows you to see beyond the mythology of the singular self.
PTSD patients seem to have weak DMN connections, and overactive salience networks. That’s why my brain overreacts to a movie and sends me reeling back to a terrible memory. My salience network is screaming “Hey, this is important! Last time you heard this sound people got hurt.” My attention network is doing tasks: shaking, hyperventilating, all that hilarious fight-or-flight stuff. My sense of self is shattered, and I am sent reeling back to a previous configuration of my mind.
The self is a story, after all. I did this, I was that, I became so. It’s a story of conflict between me and not-me, the struggle to craft something from nothing, the fight against oblivion.
So it makes sense that the default mode network is associated with stories. It’s the way we process intentional behavior: actions that have a mind behind them. It’s also how we anthropomorphize clouds, or trees, or abstract forces such as liberty and justice. We drift around thought-space, imagining how those entities might feel from the inside, and in doing so we become them. We configure our minds through repeated behavior.
So instead of reaching for a fistful of feeds, make deliberate time to unwind the mind. Meditation is good, but so is a walk or a workout or a nap. Anything that you can do without thinking is good: gardening, washing dishes, riding a bike. Relax into your mental playground. Experience wonder, and puzzlement, and consideration. Retrain your salience network on non-engineered stimuli. Instead of tweets, write a journal. In lieu of podcasts listen to birds. In your lap pet the cat, not the keyboard.
The behavior designers want to rebuild your brain so that every stimulus makes you think “grab phone, check feed, buy buy buy.” They want to simulate PTSD in your brain, dismantle your sense of identity and bend your habits to their ends. To switch your default mode.
You can’t just chuck the phone in a lake and go back to the pre-internet world. We all have to accept the reality of an interconnected planet. But you can retreat into your own supreme knowledge of yourself. You can craft your identity out of lived experiences, rather than consumer goods. And if your ego is fractured and glitchy, you can eat some mushrooms and rebuild it. Just like a haircut, it will grow back.
You get to decide the story of you. That’s the whole point of being a person.
Thanks for reading, – Max
P.S.: Whatever you think of my pet theories, the wikipedia page for Default mode network is fascinating. Check it out.
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