KEY POINTS:

1. In the brain, the self can be perceived in one of two ways: the experiential mode, or the default mode. The default mode is kind of like being on auto-pilot, and is where most of us operate on a day-to-day basis.

2. The experiential mode is a foundational component of mindfulness practice. It is when an individual is “in the zone” and is so enraptured in the present moment that they have lost awareness of themselves.

3. When we spend too much time in the default mode, we miss out on the joy and the lessons that exist in the little things right before us. 

By Dr. Ellen Choi

When your mind wanders, what are you thinking about? Have you ever noticed that our mental chatter is often concerned with reliving something in the past or worrying about something that has yet to come? When it is focused on the present, it’s often critical - like, “I can’t believe that someone would park their car like that” or “what on earth is Terry wearing?”

Researchers have discovered that the brain has a default mode, a sort of auto-pilot function that most of us operate in on a day-to-day basis. There is, however, another alternative. In the brain, the self can be perceived in one of two ways: the experiential mode, or the default mode.

The experiential mode is the more elusive of the two. It is a foundational component of mindfulness practices because in this mode, we are not watching ourselves as if we are the star of a movie, but instead we’re just in the moment itself. The experiential mode can be understood as a flow state where an individual is “in the zone” and are so enraptured in the present moment that they have lost awareness of themselves. Think of a hockey player skating on the ice thinking only of her stick and the puck. Another example is to think about what it’s like when you’re sitting on the dock at the cottage and enjoying the sound of the lake and the smell of the air instead of worrying about the email you forgot to send earlier that day. In this mode or processing, the physical senses are primarily engaged. When we place our attention on our senses, like the feeling of breathing in and out, we are engaging an experiential mode of self-processing.
 
The default mode - also referred to as the narrative mode - has three characteristics. First, the self is experienced in the past or in the future; anywhere but in the present moment. Second, the narrative mode is self-obsessed and loves thinking about itself: what am I going to eat for lunch or when am I going to get my promotion? Finally, when we operate in the default mode we see the world through a critical lens constantly evaluating and judging our experiences. Imagine eating a piece of chocolate. In the narrative mode, instead of enjoying the chocolate, we might be thinking “I shouldn’t be eating this since it has so many calories” or “this isn’t as good as the last chocolate I ate” whereas in the experiential mode you would simply be savouring its taste as it melts on the tongue. The narrative mode is beneficial because it lets us learn from the past and plan for the future. But, when we spend too much time in the default mode, we miss out on the joy and the lessons that exist in the little things right before us. Along these lines, a recent study conducted out of Harvard found that being present was a better predictor of happiness than the activity one was actually engaging in. This is an empowering finding because we cannot always control what we need to do in a day, but we can choose to be fully present while we’re doing them.

In the age of neuroplasticity, there are actions we can take to begin rewiring how our brain functions. Meditation appears to be one way to literally reprogram the brain and break the default mode.

Today's Power Up: Tame The Default Mind

Here are three other ways to push back against the default mode so that you can be here for the big and little moments of your life.

1. Start developing your awareness by simply noticing when you are and are not present. There is some evidence to suggest that approximately 50% of the time we are not focusing on the task before us. In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a thought leader in the mindfulness world, when you’re walking, just walk; when you’re eating, just eat!

2. Start thinking more about others. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to say in your next meeting or what your peers think about your report, spend a moment or two focusing on others. Sit down and write a thank you note to someone in your life. Or try sending every person you walk by a kind thought like “have a nice day” or “may you be happy” and see how you feel after a short period of time.

3. Tame your critical voice. Practice observing and suspending judgment. It may surprise you how often and how quickly your mind is judging everything around you. Begin by observing what and when you’re judging, and then wherever possible, see if you can allow an experience to simply be without labelling it as positive or negative. The best part about decreasing the amount of time we judge others is that we tend to start judging ourselves less as well.