In 2001 neuroscientist from Washington University Marcus Raichle published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describing a brain network called default mode network that forms a critical and centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the celebral cortex to deeper structures involved in memory and emotion. The discovery was kind of a scientific accident that happened during a brain research experiments. During this experiment, while observing patient’s brain under the FMRI, Raichle has noticed that several areas in the brain exhibited heightened activity precisely when the subjects were doing nothing mentally. This state of brain was called “Default Mode” – the network of brain structures that light up with activity when there are no demands on our attention.
Raichle also found out that default network is in kind of a competitive state with other brain networks, such as the ones maintain our attention. When default mode network is on, our attention networks go down, or the vice versa, when we deploy our full attention, our default mode network shuts down. Another fact that gives us a better understanding about the work of default network is that, it is in its peak performance when we conduct higher level metacognitive processes, such as self reflection, self analysis, mental time travel, or mental construction, moral reasoning and etc. Long story short, everything that is our ego, is within this default mode network of our brain. Vise versa is not true however, our default network is more than our ego, as there are some mechanical activities going on as well, however, as a mental thinking process, which includes self reflection, self definition, self understanding, as well as judgement (self or others), are being conducted within the borders of brain’s default network.
Therefore, I honestly believe that the discovery of the default network is one of the profound discoveries of the last decades, as it gives us a hint about how and why we define ourselves in one or another way, and what we can do about it?
First thing first – the default mode network keeps order in a system so complex it might otherwise descent into the anarchy of mental illness. As a crucial part of it, our ego – our self image, self construction defines who we are, how we see ourselves, what we strive to and overall, what we want to do in life. In a nutshell, our ego is who we are. As a self-concious beings, having clearly defined self image, observable ego is something that distinguishes us from other life forms, but on other hand, the price of the sense of an individual identity is a sense of seperation from others and nature.
Michael Pollan, the author of “How to change your mind” – a fascinating book about our consciousness and how does it operate under a specific chemicals and psychodelic drugs, clearly states that “Self reflection leads to great intellectual and artistic achievements, but also to destructive forms of self regard and many types of unhappiness. But accepting the good with the bad, most of us take this self as an unshakeble given, as real as anything we know, and as the foundation of our life as conciuous human beings”
So the tradeoff of ego is clear here. It makes us an intellectual and self-aware beings, but also diminishes our reality to so tiny form that it creates a huge obstacle for us on the way of experiencing life. We become isolated, and most of the times lonely and feel this loneliness in every bit of our being. As it was not enough, after some period of time, when ego is a dominant power in our consciousness, and starts eating almost all of our energy that our brain gets, it builds up more and more mental constructions and limitations, and when it gets out of control, our ego becomes our own enemy. It clearly starts criticising others to convince itself in its superiority. It seeks and finds imperfections in everything and uses that to feed the same feedback loop – others (doesn’t matter, people or situations), are bad, and I am the only good one in here. And then this sense of seperation from our environment deepens and deepens.
It is clear that ego was one of the main tools in the course of our evolution to become who we are – self-concious beings that tamed the power of nature with the power of intellect, and built up artificial world where each single individual can growth without facing awful and unexpected horrors of nature. That is indeed a good thing. But as evolution gave a special privilege to the ego, it controls almost all of aspects of our life. And when left without control by our conciousness, it acts in a terrible way by leading our way to self-destruction. Ironic, isn’t it? The mechanism that nature armed us to survive, can turn against us and destroy us.
Does it scare you or creates a bad taste in your mind? No need for that, as things are not that awful as it may sound here. Luckily, thousand years of spiritual practices, and 16 years of scientific experiments confirm that there are more to our brains than only ego. There are different kinds of consciousness modes that we can attain, that would change our perception of reality, our experience in this life, as well as our characters. The most common example of it are people who meditate regularly. As the main purpose of meditation is to shut down the never ending internal monologue and conflict that is occurring in our brain caused by ego a.k.a default mode network, regular meditation plays a role of powerful tool to take control over the ego and learn how to turn off that thought noise we all suffer from. Just go and talk to people who meditate regularly for a years period, and they’ll convince you how this practice helps them to stay sane in their daily lives. And this practice also indicates that, the less active is ego, or default mode network in the areas of our lives that doesn’t regure extensive intellectual power, the happier and healthier we get. When default mode network is quiet, brain get a chance to utilize and deploy other networks that are responsible for our emotions, attention, love and compassion. Without ego having a control in some aspects of our lives, we love more, we enjoy our present moments and our attention is sharp. Does it sound like what I told you minutes ago regarding the spiritual aspect of ego?
To draw a concolusion, I’d say that ego concept that we’ve been holding to since last couple of thousands years (even though we were calling it differently), was telling us something useful and dramatically important. However, without the power of science we were unable to totally understand what is ego, where it is located and what are its impact in our lives. With the discovery of the default mode network of our brain we’ve been in a better shape in understanding how our ego works, how it evolved and helped us throughout the course of evolution and history, and what are its side effects. These scientific facts show that ego is quite a useful tool, only if we know how to keep it under control. It also clears some superstitions of the spiritual practices about ego. We can’t and shouldn’t get rid of our ego completely. Why? Because, it may lead to dramatic outcomes, such as losing our self-image, self-construction, and eventually bring us to the areas of mental illness and total self-ignorance. And maybe to the decline of our intellect? I don’ know, and I don’t want to look that further.
Fact is fact – Ego is super useful tool of defining who we are, what we want and where we are going. But it is good only in the aspects of our lives that require intellectual mental work. We can and we need to tune our ego and make its involvement minimum in some areas of our lives, such as in our family life, in our social circles, or maybe while we are trying to enjoy our time. And to do so, we have to learn how to deploy other parts of our brain and keep our default mode network under control. This way, we can achieve that amazing feeling of accomplishment, happiness and love, and be less isolated and more connected to each other.
In next episodes, I’ll talk about meditation and other great tools that would give you more power over your ego – default mode network, and share some more insights about my own experience, and how the proper practice of those tools helped me and sort of changed my life.
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