If you are habitually pulled into the outside world by distracting media, you may be systematically undermining opportunities to reflect about the moral, social, emotional, and longer-term implications of a situation

- Mary Helen, EdD, a professor at the University of Southern California

Figure 1: Overview of the main brain regions comprising the default mode (DM) network, with brief
descriptions of associated socioemotional functions. The DM regions listed are relatively more active and
show coordinated activity during wakeful “rest.” The regions depicted are also involved in many other
functions, including various cognitive association functions and aspects of homeostatic regulation and
somatosensation, especially for the milieu of the internal body (i.e., the “guts”). The left side of the image
shows the front of the brain; the right and left hemispheres are split apart to show the medial surface. Note
that these brain areas cannot be said to “do” the functions listed. Instead, they are especially “associated”
with these functions and as such are thought to play important roles within the complex networks of
regions underlying the functions (Source: Immordino-Yang et al.)

 

 

Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou and Vanessa Singh

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is a neuroscientist with the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, Los Angeles and the Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Her specialty is the neuroscience of learning, creativity, culture, morality and social interaction.

Professor Immordino-Yang and her research colleagues are doing important research which reveals the importance of human “down time”, that is moments when we are wakefully resting and not focusing our attention on anything in particuliar. Meditation teachers have long recognized the value of such moments when our conscious minds are apparently not “doing anything”. The brain state corresponding to this “down time” is referredt to as the brain’s Default Mode (DM). Professor Immordino-Yang and her team are investigating the importance of the Default Mode of brain function that is spontaneously induced during rest, daydreaming and other nonattentive awake states. (Smallwood, Obonsawin, & Heim, 2003). Emerging brain function research is revealing that neural networks responsible for maintaining and focusing our attention into the environment appear to toggle with  this default mode (DM) of brain function. Research from social and affective neuroscience further suggests the importance of DM brain systems for active, internally focused psycho-social mental processing for tasks such as those  involved with self-awareness and reflection.

These states are revealed when subjects brains are observed in the functional MRI scanner. Research is beginning to paint a picture of the DM brain systems which are activated during rest and during internally focused psychosocial mental processing such as:

  1. recalling personal memories
  2. imagining the future
  3. feeling social emotions with moral connotations

There is evidence that the DM impacts psychological functioning, including associations with mental health and cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking and more research is encouraged in the direction of impacts with free-form daydreaming and off-line consolidation to intensive, effortful abstract thinking, especially with socioemotional relevance.

In particular, there is evidence that the development of some socioemotional skills may be vulnerable to disruption by environmental distractions such as certain educational practices or overuse of social media. Professor Immordino-Yang hypothesizes that high environmental attention demands may bias youngsters to focus on the concrete, physical, and immediate aspects of social situations and self, which may be more compatible with external attention. They coin the term constructive internal reflection and advocate educational practices that promote effective balance between external attention and internal reflection.