Don’t Fight Your Default Mode Network

Epistemic Status: Attaching a concept made of neuroscience I don’t understand to a thing I noticed introspectively. “Introspection doesn’t work, so you definitely shouldn’t take this seriously.” If you have any “epistemic standards”, flee.

Update: corrections in comments.

I once spent some time logging all my actions in Google Calendar, to see how I spent time. And I noticed there was a thing I was doing, flipping through shallow content on the internet in the midst of doing certain work. Watching YouTube videos and afterward not remembering anything that was in them.

“Procrastination”, right? But why not remember anything in them? I apparently wasn’t watching them because I wanted to see the content. A variant of the pattern: flipping rapidly (Average, more than 1 image per second) through artwork from the internet I saved on my computer a while ago. (I’ve got enough to occupy me for about an hour without repetition.) Especially strong while doing certain tasks. Writing an algorithm with a lot of layers of abstraction internal to it, making hard decisions about transition.

I paid attention to what it felt like to start to do this, and thinking the reasons to do the Real Work did not feel relevant. It pattern matched to something they talked about at my CFAR workshop, “Trigger action pattern: encounter difficulty -> go to Facebook.” Discussed as a thing to try and get rid of directly or indirectly. I kept coming back to the Real Work about 1-20 minutes later. Mostly on the short end of that range. And then it didn’t feel like there was an obstacle to continuing anymore. I’d feel like I was holding a complete picture of what I was doing next and why in my head again. There’s a sense in which this didn’t feel like an interruption to Real Work I was doing.

While writing this, I find myself going blank every couple of sentences, staring out the window, half-watching music videos. Usually for less than a minute, and then I feel like I have the next thing to write. Does this read like it was written by someone who wasn’t paying attention?

There’s a meme that the best thoughts happen in the shower. There’s the trope, “fridge logic”, about realizing something about a work of fiction while staring into the fridge later. There’s the meme, “sleep on it.” I feel there is a different quality to my thoughts when I’m walking, biking, etc. for a long time, and have nothing cognitively effortful to do which is useful for having a certain kind of thought.

I believe these are all mechanisms to hand over the brain to the default mode network, and my guess-with-terrible-epistemic-standards on its function is to propagate updates through to caches and realize implications of something. I may or may not have an introspective sense of having a picture of where I am relative to the world, that I execute on, which gets fragmented as I encounter things, and which this remakes. Which acting on when fragmented leads to making bad decisions because of missing things. When doing this, for some reason, I like having some kind of sort of meaningful but familiar stimulus to mostly-not-pay-attention-to. Right now I am listening to and glimpsing at this, a bunch of clips I’ve seen a zillion times from a movie I’ve already seen, with the sound taken out, replaced with nonlyrical music. It’s a central example. (And I didn’t pick it consciously, I just sort of found it.)

Search your feelings. If you know this to be true, then I advise you to avoid efforts to be more productive which split time spent into “work” and “non-work” where non-work is this stuff, and that try to convert non-work into work on the presumption that non-work is useless.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Fight Your Default Mode Network”

  1. Have you read Pragmatic Thinking & Learning? What you’re describing seems heavily related to a phenomenon described in that book where you can monopolize your verbal/symbolic brain with a menial task to let your spatial/non-verbal/synthesizing brain get work done and let its results surface in your consciousness. Andy Hunt, the author, suggests following labyrinths (in the sense of “mazes without branches”), going for walks, and performing other automatic physical motions that distract your verbal/symbolic brain without taxing it heavily. It sounds like you’re describing a similar phenomenon, but at a notably different timescale.

    1. No, I haven’t read it. I’m internally divided on whether this makes sense as an entire explanation. One of the parts that seems like maybe something more, is it seems to me like arbitrarily-changing rewindable arbitrary context-stimulation somehow helps expand my working memory for things I can’t easily write down. I’m not surprised it would contain that idea, given my brief examination of it when I triaged it a few years ago.

  2. I’m not sure I have this but what I do have is a habit of opening a browser to go to my favorite site, e.g. xkcd, read something or just notice there is nothing new, close and go back to work. I notice it immediately and sometimes I immediate close the window. Sometimes I browse longer.

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