Radical Downtime and the Default Mode Network

Nothing,” John said, unable to keep a wry smile from creasing the corners of his mouth. It was June of 2014, and I had asked John about his summer plans. Nothing. No soccer camp. No internship. Coding course? Trombone competition?  Service trip? Nope. Nada. Uh-uh. Nothing.

With all my zeal for being a non-anxious presence, I couldn’t help my throat from cramping just a little with worry for this child. Surely all of his friends’ parents were attending to their kids’ needs for stimulation, enrichment, challenge and … I’m not sure … moral virtue? I muttered “Got it. Cool,” and tried to think why it was cool before turning to that day’s ACT prep, putting away my vague concerns about neglecting John’s brain. This fit of pique was, of course, before I learned about the default mode network.

It turns out that nothing is a magnificently important thing for developing brains to spend time on. When our brains are allowed to wander from some specific task — sharpening up our trombone scales or using stack overflow to learn about arrays — the default mode network (DMN) is deactivated. We’re engaged to complete the task. It’s as though our mental muscles are taut and tense and prepared for work. But brains, like muscles, do not grow strong and resilient through constant, exhaustive effort, but rather through intermittent periods of manageable stress punctuated by rest. Work. Rest. Repeat. Grow strong.

So just what is the Default Mode Network? It turns out to be an entire network involving multiple parts of our brains. The DMN is all about connection: of various parts of brains interacting to create mental coherence, to and with other people, to our past and futures, and to ourselves. It is activated when we think about what we like in our friends and families, or when we tell each other stories around a campfire. It’s activated when we aimlessly walk about in the woods, considering who we are and what plans we might make for the future.

So enjoy these aimless, connecting activities. As prominent researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang observed, “Rest is not idleness.” Indeed, we can all do a little more nothing.