Imagine you are sitting in an uncomfortable seat in a lecture room, listening to a talk about brain waves you cannot really understand, after having woken up from a 4-hour night sleep with still some alcohol running through your bloodstream… In such a situation, listening can be particularly difficult. For me, a healthcare student doing a second master, this is a reality approximately once a week. But I am sure I am not the only one; you must have had similar experiences.
At such a moment I seem to lose all sense of reality: my sensory integration is lowered and my reflexes are alarmingly absent. I’m left in my own little world, daydreaming about chilling on the beach in Spain, with a mojito in my hand. After having endured the torture of trying to stay awake during class, I come home and stumble into my bed to take a much-needed siesta.
But soon my mind goes to mayhem-mode and starts to wander. I start making all these associations that often are of a self-reflective nature. I wonder why I can’t live some sort of mature, structured and focused life…? It is a mess in my room and I do not dare to cook in my dirty student-dorm kitchen for danger of contamination. There is chaos in my lecture notes, chaos in my love life and chaos in my email inbox. There is chaos on the street, chaos in religion, chaos in Europe and now again: chaos in my head! What is wrong with me?
For a long time I have tried to figure out why I sustain this seemingly self-destructive lifestyle and time after time, keep losing focus on actually studying. You would think, after calling my profession ‘Student’ for five years now, I would have perfected the art of studying. I see the newspaper headlines before me:
Student comes to the rescue of other, less skilled, students and sets an example!
She has a hunchback like that of Quasimodo from sitting hours behind her desk, but she has Brains of Steel! Like no other, she is able to do some serious learning, with the help of her amazing concentration abilities and information-absorbing techniques that are accessible 24/7. The world of students will never be the same again…
Woops, sorry, I started daydreaming again… Unfortunately, this is definitely not my reality and staying concentrated and focused on one task can be damn hard! Why I wonder… You would think that our brain is big enough to have evolved a cognitive function like ‘infinite concentration’. But why hasn’t it?
The default brain
I think I found the answer recently and thus discovered the root of evil that must underlie the chaos in my mind: ‘the default brain’. This term suggest that there is an alternative brain, opposite to the active brain, which is active when you do ‘nothing’.
That’s right! The ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) are hyperactive when you yourself are in ‘default mode’. ‘Default’ is a state defined as ‘participating in no task in particular’. Cool right?
The exact function of the default brain is not known, but its neural activity does imply a cognitive function. Some talk about ‘mind wandering’ or ‘having random thoughts’. It might even have a function in memory formation and prediction making. Supposedly, the default brain files all information, impressions and thoughts acquired during the day, archives it and puts a personal spin on it. In this way it takes meaningless sensory input and constructs a personal framework, making information meaningful to that individual.
This must be the reason why I cannot concentrate on studying! Surely, the default brain has an essential role in human functioning… but at the same time it is really annoying! My hypothesis about the default network, which is obviously not based on any empirical evidence, is the following: To prevent a shit-load of information accumulating to a point of no return, the default brain forces itself upon you whenever it can. It functions like this whiny little kid I babysit once in a while. He always finds a way to claim my attention, mostly just when I am watching a crucial scene from a classic movie. So, the default brain is continuously present and sneaky enough to alter your concentration before you even realise that it has. Then, you are left daydreaming, being in an idle state, with only your own thoughts, memories and dreamzzzz…
Focus Young One!
So focusing attention to X might actually be the act of ignoring not-X. But ignoring a screaming, crying child is not only unkind, it also seems morally impossible! This is exactly the reason why I think the default brain must be the reason for my destructive non-studying behaviour. My proposition would be to tuck in that devious default brain during the day for a long nap, and let it go crazy when I am sound asleep at night. How? Simple: just drug the little whiny kid… woops, sorry… the little whiny default brain! With the default brain knocked out in a corner, I would really be able to lose myself in something interesting and be the Master-Jedi-Student I was meant to be.
P.s. To a certain degree not only students, I think most people show this avoidance behaviour frantically. A nice theory linked to this is that of structured procrastination (this won an IgNobel prize this year: http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/).
A blog by Anke Murillo Oosterwijk