AdventWord 2023: Awake

Graffiti word AWAKE

Awake

Have you ever described yourself as “being on autopilot”? Well, you probably were! Specific regions of the brain, together called the “default mode network”, kick in when we do a practised activity.

One study watched the brain activity of volunteers while they learned a card game. When they first started playing and were trying to figure out the rules, brain activity was all over the place. Once they got it down, brain activity died down except in the DMN – and their performance improved, getting both faster and more accurate.

New Scientist explains more about how your autopilot is real! This specialised function is super powerful! It frees up large amounts of brain activity to focus on anything novel or tricky while still letting us do “basic” (to that individual) activities.

Have you ever...

Have you ever suddenly come up with a solution to a problem that’s been bothering you while doing something mundane and entirely unrelated, like brushing your teeth or folding laundry? That’s the “freed up” parts of your brain tackling background problems while the DMN handles the immediate work.

Many people find this so reliable that they deliberately do “mindless tasks” when they have a problem to solve. Alternatively, use a creative block to overcome something. This helps them break through faster than consciously focusing on the issue. Activating autopilot and letting your active mind wander can result in all sorts of interesting ideas!

But...

Without that active component, autopilot can become a problem.

A lot of “modern” society is designed for us to be overworked, overstressed, under-rested, and under-played. This means that when your DMN kicks in, there’s a tendency for your tired active mind to just… sit there.

confused mind
Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

Ever get to the end of the day and know you did a lot, but you can barely remember anything that happened? Or say goodbye to a loved one and then realise you don’t know what the conversation was about because you were nodding through it? Or the end credits start rolling and you find that you’ve eaten all your snacks but you didn’t actually watch the movie?

While it’s impressive that our subconscious can guide us through life with so little input, autopilot cuts us off from the world around us. When we’re just following those internalised scripts, this “sleepwalking” effect, we miss out on truly living.

So, if you’re struggling with this, how do you “wake up” your brain?

How to awake your brain...

Since we know our DMN takes over for practised, familiar tasks, the obvious thing to do is seek out novelty. If you have no idea how to do a task, your whole brain is involved and getting “in the moment” becomes much easier.

This doesn’t have to be anything big, dramatic, or expensive – any novelty will do.

  • Do you have a fixed route to get to school/work, or the shops? Try taking a slightly different path.
  • Try out a free game – there are loads of apps/websites out there. Play until you feel like you’ve got it figured out. (Or until it stops being fun.)
  • If you have no idea how to draw, try it! Grab a pencil/pen and some scrap paper and doodle, sketch, or even follow a video tutorial. (If you know how to draw, try drawing in a different style.) Don’t worry about it looking good, just engage yourself.

Just like stretching helps your muscles, engaging with novelty helps by stretching your brain.

Another way to “wake up” and reconnect with the world around you is by bringing your conscious mind to bear on usually automatic tasks. You’ve probably heard about “mindfulness”, and this is just one of the ways it can be helpful.

For example, if you find you generally inhale lunch without tasting it, you can deliberately switch off autopilot by focusing on the activity. Remove distractions (browsing online or on social media is a common problem), check in with each sense in turn (how does the food smell, look, taste, and feel?), and reflect on what the food means (did you cook this for yourself? Did someone else make it for you? Did you buy it? Regardless of the answer it’s cause for celebration and gratitude).

Final word...

By seeking out novelty and embracing mindfulness, we can engage fully with life.

But remember that this all means more work for your active mind, so be sure to schedule in appropriate rest! There’s nothing wrong with relaxing with a familiar activity that your DMN can handle for you. Just so long as you’re choosing to switch the autopilot on, not having it hijack your life.

Lee Heywood

Lee Heywood

MBS Volunteer

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