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What the Default Mode Network (DMN) and Task Positive Network (TPN) modes of the brain teach us about focus

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on Dec 2, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

The DMN and TPN areas of the brain perform different functions. The DMN is active during brooding, rumination, and other imaginative thought. The TPN is active when you're focused on tasks. Understanding these different networks can help us understand why our attention can sometimes shift its focus.

Context recap in this series

In a recent post in this series, How to move from focus sessions to flow sessions, I summarized Csikszentmihalyi’s book on Flow and explored how to enter this state. However, I was dissatisfied about the assumptions Csikszentmihalyi makes about “psychic entropy” being the natural state of the mind, and I wanted to understand the reasons why. Psychic entropy (Csikszentmihalyi’s term) is more commonly known as “monkey mind,” but in my post From monkey mind to calm, ordered consciousness — even outside of flow? Wrestling with Csikszentmihalyi’s assumptions about psychic entropy, I didn’t uncover any special reason for our default monkey mind other than speculating that our random Internet surfing behavior (or similar behavior with surfing TV) might teach the brain similar chaotic patterns to follow. In contrast, reading books seemed to encourage a more linear, sequential, and mellow brainwaves.

That consciousness post was kind of in right field, way out of my depth and veering further from more tangible topics. I was about to leave the exploration there and retreat back into more familiar territory when I stumbled onto a book called ADHD 2.0 that catapulted my thinking on this topic into more modern science. I learned terms and theories that better articulate this world of the brain when it comes to focused or unfocused states. These areas of the brain include the Default Mode Network (DMN) and Task Positive Network (TPN). Understanding how these two networks interact can be helpful for this larger discussion about staying focused.

DMN and TPN

fMRI (imaging devices that can observe the brain in action) has moved forward how we understand the brain. Scientists use fMRI to observe the brain in different states, and they found that when the brain isn’t engaged in any particular task, the Default Mode Network (DMN) is active. The DMN was first observed around 1997. Scientists refer to it as the Default Mode Network because it’s the default mode of the brain when you’re not engaged in a task. In contrast, when you’re focused on a task, the Task Positive Network (TPN) is active. (By network, this means there are various regions of the brain that become active, rather than one specific spot.)

In ADHD 2.0, Edward Hallowell and John Ratey explain the DMN lights up when we’re lost in thought. For example, brooding, ruminating, thinking about future events, dissecting past events, daydreaming, letting our imaginations go free, woolgathering, thinking about worries, going down rabbit holes, and more. When you miss an exit because you’re thinking about what life would be like living on the street after the economy collapses and the Ukraine war escalates into WWIII, that’s your DMN in fully active mode.

Most of the time, the DMN focuses on negative thoughts. And if you keep replaying negative thoughts over and over (negative rumination), you can get stuck deeper in this mode. Hallowell and Ratey say that when you find yourself in DMN mode, you should take advantage of the DMN’s ability to jump tracks (for example, to go down random rabbit holes) by distracting it. The DMN can easily be sidetracked, evidenced by its ability to think about one topic one minute, then another the next, and so on. To exit DMN mode, externalize your thoughts in some other way. For example, focus on your breathing, and breathe in specific patterns. Or go find your pet and play with it. Or look at your environment and observe 10 things you never noticed before. Get outside yourself.

I find the DMN fascinating. It aligns with the psychic entropy that Csikszentmihalyi talked about. Csikszentmihalyi’s big idea about human happiness was for people to focus on tasks (slipping into the TPN mode) so that the DMN wouldn’t run wild and fill the mind with worries and negative imagination. It’s the DMN that’s responsible for the “unfulfilled wants, dashed expectations, loneliness, frustration, anxiety, guilt … [and] the dark side of the emergence of consciousness” that Csikszentmihalyi mentioned” (227).

As you shift into specific tasks, the Task Positive Network, or TPN, activates. For example, suppose you’re fixing your bicycle, or writing code, or reading a book — in each case, you’re doing a task. When you’re focused on a task, your DMN recedes into the background and isn’t active. With the DMN locked away, you aren’t burdened by the intruding negative thoughts. In Csikszentmihalyi’s world, you slip into states of flow and are no longer focused on anxious negative brooding or concerns.

But as soon as you lose momentum on that task and your mind starts to wander, bam, the DMN starts becoming active. Hallowell and Ratey explain:

When you allow your mind to wander from a task, or when you finish the task, or if you pause too long in anger or dismay while doing the task, the TPN in your brain defaults to a different connectome. Not surprisingly—given that we default to this state—this other connectome is called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN allows for expansive, imaginative, and creative thinking. The back half of the DMN—called the posterior cingulate—facilitates your autobiographic memory, your personal history. This allows you to think back, draw upon, and pick apart the past.

The front part, the medial prefrontal cortex, is the opposite. It enables you to look forward and to think about, imagine, and plan for the future. It is in the DMN mode that you can daydream (and miss your exit on the highway) or make interesting connections between concepts (helpful when appreciating riddles or jokes or solving crossword puzzles, or coming up with the Next Big Thing). It was surely in the DMN that the wheel was discovered!

The DMN and TPN are the yin and yang of your brain. Both help us and hold us back in certain ways. One isn’t better than the other. But as helpful as the DMN can be (angelic in its own right), it is also a Demon (as its initialism suggests!) for the ADHD or VAST brain because of our capacity for intractable rumination while captive in it. (24-25)

Hallowell and Ratey say to think of the DMN as an angel and demon. Angel for the imaginative, creative muse that can give rise to insights, epiphanies, and other realizations. And a demon for its ability to amplify negative thoughts, construct dark imagination and anxiety, to multiply regret and worry.

For a good podcast explaining DMN and TPN networks, see the Angels and Demons (The TPN and DMN Networks) episode from The Attention Seeking Podcast.

The breakdown of the seesaw

I feel like I now have the right terms to talk about these different functions of the brain. When you’re in monkey mind mode, the DMN is active. When you’re engaged in a task, the TPN is active. In most brains, the DMN and TPN function like a seesaw, Hallowell and Ratey explain. When the DMN is active, the TPN is inactive; conversely, when the TPN is active, the DMN is inactive.

The DMN and TPN normally function like a seesaw, with one active while the other is inactive.

However, here’s where things get interesting. People with ADHD can have both DMN and TPN modes active at the same time. There isn’t always a seesaw effect. Further, when the seesaw does tilt correctly, there can be a “glitchy switch” between the two modes, the authors say. Someone with ADHD can get stuck in TPN mode, which locks them into a hyper-focused state where everything sort of becomes mute around them. Similarly, they can get stuck in DMN mode, unable to transition into specific tasks as they delve deeper into negative brooding.

With both modes co-active, however, as soon as someone with ADHD starts a task, the DMN distracts them away from the task, pulling their attention elsewhere. The inability to shut off the DMN when you’re focused on a task can make it nearly impossible to focus on the task, as the mind wanders elsewhere and is pulled away by the smallest of curiosities. (Much of the medication for ADHD focuses on fixing this glitchy switch between the DMN and TPN.) Hallowell and Ratey explain:

To paraphrase Gabrieli, the problem when ADHD enters in is twofold. The first is what’s called the anticorrelation property of the two networks. Imagine a seesaw. In a neurotypical brain, when the TPN is turned on and you’re on task, the DMN is turned off. But in the ADHD brain, the fMRI shows that when the TPN is turned on, the DMN is turned on as well, trying to muscle its way in and pull you into its grasp, thereby distracting you. In ADHD, therefore, the DMN competes with the TPN, which in most people it does not do.

The blessing and the curse vie for top billing, for attention. When the DMN brings lovely images, it is our golden tool. But when it jumps track into the TPN and hijacks consciousness, then the DMN becomes the Demon, the seat of misery, the disease of the imagination. Trapped in the past or future in the DMN, you’re likely to abandon projects you once started with enthusiasm, make careless mistakes, or, worse, fall into a state of misery and despair, for no good reason whatsoever. (25)

Just being aware of these two networks seems useful. If you can recognize when your DMN is taking over, you can then distract it and try to reactivate your TPN. It’s also helpful to recognize that the DMN gravitates toward negative thoughts. If the DMN were to gravitate toward positive thinking, it would be a much more welcome state. I wrote earlier about our negativity bias in reading the news; this negativity bias is the intrigue humans seem to have for the negative over the positive (we slow down to see wrecks alongside the road, but not wildflowers). The DMN also has its own built-in negativity bias, it seems.

Hacks for getting going in the morning

Learning about these networks in ADHD 2.0 was super interesting to me. First of all, three of the four people I live with have ADHD; learning about the traits has brought me greater understanding and compassion than ever before. (I’ve only scratched the iceberg here on ADHD traits, by the way.) And second, I’m wondering if the key to jumping into more productive, flow-like states is to learn how to transition from the DMN into the TPN.

In particular, I have a hard time “getting going” on tasks in the morning. I often flitter around a bit, doing easy tasks, before I can get in the rhythm and groove of work. If I can figure out ways to quiet the DMN, or even just to warm up my TPN network, I will have solved a huge obstacle to productivity.

Getting going in the morning
I struggle to get going in the morning. I'm like an old car that needs a lot of warm-up before it can go anywhere

I’ve written a lot about the value of focus sessions and turning off distractions. But what I haven’t found in previous books (such as those by Cal Newport) were tried-and-true techniques for sustaining motivation and getting into the TPN mode early. It’s common to procrastinate on difficult tasks, doing almost anything except what I should until deadlines and stress compel me. How can I get my TPN engine going? Ideally, I’d like to wake up in the morning, list my highest priority tasks for the day, and immediately start working on them — rather than slowly coming around to them after a couple of hours of reading email, checking the news, browsing the internet, and doing other easy/distractible activities.

Let’s take a concrete example: writing this post. I finished the book ADHD 2.0 a few days ago and wanted to write a post about it, but I had trouble starting. So to write this post, I tried a simple technique. I started watching 10 minutes of sports. Then afterwards, I set a timer and told myself I’d work on this post for just 5 minutes. I can do anything for 5 minutes, right? Then I set the timer to watch another 5 minutes of sports. After that, I set my writing timer for 10 minutes. Then back to sports for 5 minutes. Then at this point, I sort of caught a rhythm in writing this post and have lost track of my timer. I think I’ve been writing for 30 minutes now.

I haven’t read this TPN warmup technique suggested anyway, but it probably is just a spinoff of the Pomodoro technique or an implementation of the saying “The first step is always the hardest.” Just as you don’t start playing full-on competition soccer without warming up first, why not treat the brain in a similar way? Do some light warmups to get going. Think of these warmups as starting the TPN engine and letting it warm up.

Besides the TPN warmup, what else works? I asked my colleague the other week what catalysts she uses to get into tasks. She said she finds some aspect of the task that she likes and wants to do, and uses that aspect as a way to get into the task. For example, maybe a documentation task will allow you to learn about something you’ve wanted to know. So you start learning about that thing you wanted to learn, and then gradually merge your attention into the documentation task.

The ability to activate the TPN seems like one of the keys to unlock productivity. If I can sustain my energy toward my goals, I’d be unstoppable. I usually get derailed when I lose motivation or interest in the task.

VAST

Hallowell and Ratey published their seminal book, Driven to Distraction, in 1994. In that book, they raised awareness and understanding of ADHD in major ways (even though ADD had been observed since 1902). In ADHD 2.0, the authors assess what’s changed over the last 30 years in the ADHD field and catch up on the topic. Among the list of what’s new is something they call “variable attention stimulus trait” (VAST), which is brought on by “modern life.” When people describe their behavior as “so ADD” or describe themselves as having short attention spans but don’t have diagnosed ADHD, Hallowell and Ratey call this VAST. The authors write:

Beyond the sources of biologically based ADHD, there are a lot of people who act as if they have ADHD but on close inspection turn out not to have the diagnosable condition. These are the people who have ADHD-like symptoms caused by the conditions of modern life. Their “ADHD” is a response to the massive increase in stimuli that now bombard our brains and our world.

The massive behavioral conditioning we’ve all been undergoing since the advent of ubiquitous electronic communications technology has changed us radically. But this dramatic, if not epochal, change is underappreciated. It’s underappreciated because we’re living in it as it happens, like frogs in cold water that slowly gets heated up without the frogs trying to jump out, until they’re boiled. Our world has been getting heated up big-time. And while we could jump out, it’s pretty difficult to do so and still function in the modern world. Most of us can go no more than a few seconds without looking for a screen.

Modern life compels these changes by forcing our brains to process exponentially more data points than ever before in human history, dramatically more than we did prior to the era of the Internet, smartphones, and social media. The hardwiring of our brains has not changed—as far as we know, although some experts do suspect that our hardwiring is changing—but in our efforts to adapt to the speeding up of life and the projectile spewing of data splattering onto our brains all the time, we’ve had to develop new, often rather antisocial habits in order to cope. These habits have come together to create something we now call VAST: the variable attention stimulus trait. (14-15)

In other words, modern life has amplified the amount of information we consume daily, changing our brain’s processors so they must handle more and more information in less time. If you recall my initial post in this series (My awakening moment about how smartphones fragment our attention span), one writer said he became so addicted to reading the news that he started experiencing anxiety due to the massive amounts of information. Rolf Dobelli wrote:

Yet I still felt inexorably drawn to the overwhelming, garish parade of news, even though it was clearly making me anxious. Fragments of news reports were constantly intruding into my reality, and I was suddenly finding it difficult to read longer texts in one go. It was as though somebody had carved up my attention into tiny pieces. I started to panic that I’d never be able to recover my attention span, that I’d never again be able to assemble these fragments into a whole. (p 10)

In my earlier experiments to reclaim my attention, I went through a period in which, following Dobelli’s advice, I also stopped reading the news (as well as social media). I didn’t realize how news had been affecting me, but yes, I noticed a difference when I stopped. There was a lot less information my brain had to process, and this cleared up more space for reading books. I soon rediscovered reading and how enjoyable books can be.

I’ve since returned to reading news, but I’ve never been a heavy news reader. I glance through the summaries of the New York Times and ESPN multiple times a day, at most. I’ve also returned to glancing at Twitter (impossible not to peek at what’s going on lately). But strangely, these activities, small as they are, seem to provide me with enough information that I no longer feel drawn to read books. It’s weird. I don’t consider my online intake of information to be that extensive, yet I can unequivocally say that the more time I spend reading online (news, feeds, searches, etc.), the less time I spend reading offline.

The online experience is a constant barrage of information coming at me, and maybe the brain just wasn’t meant to process that much, or maybe the stimulation from all that information deters any interest in further information consumption. I don’t know. I initially thought I might give news up entirely, but in doing so I felt disconnected and out of the loop of world events. I never figured out a good strategy for staying connected without becoming overloaded.

Hallowell and Ratey explain, “Modern life compels these changes by forcing our brains to process exponentially more data points than ever before in human history” (14). But how does this compute? Am I consuming more information by browsing online than I consume when reading a book? What is it about the Internet’s information delivery that wreaks so much havoc on our brains? Nonlinearity? Disjointedness? Fragmentation? Chaos? In my post From monkey mind to calm, ordered consciousness, I described the possible effects from immersion in the chaos and fragmentation of the Internet, but who can abandon such a resource, or modern conveniences? Critics are quick to point the blame on social media, while Hallowell and Ratey group all of this under the larger umbrella of “modern life.” One can quit social media but … modern life? Not so much.

Coming back to TPN

So can this modern condition be fixed? For those with VAST, can we return our brains to a pre-VAST state? For those with ADHD, what hacks can be employed to switch from the DMN into the TPN, and to fix the “glitchy switch”?

Hallowell and Ratey champion the idea that the brain is malleable. Neuroplasticity is another modern finding of the brain, they say (23). The brain can change; it isn’t fixed. They write:

Incidentally, the reason that so many people are starting to look and act distracted, as if they all have ADHD or VAST, is that fewer and fewer people are spending time in the task-positive network. They are not spending enough time focusing on a single task, certainly not long enough to dig a deep enough hole or write an email longer than a sentence or two or do more than look at an egg, let alone fry one. Unfortunately, the TPN is akin to a muscle that atrophies when not used. So as we mentally flit around, the TPN weakens and our attention span shortens. (24)

In other words, Hallowell and Ratey say the fix for VAST is to focus more on tasks to build up the TPN. If we have a weak TPN, it might be because we’re constantly shifting focus, never allowing the TPN to get up to full speed for long-distance cruising. It’s 10 minutes of a task and then bam, checking email, or shopping on Amazon. Another ten minutes of a task, followed by online searches for mundane questions, or seeing what’s new on the social media feeds. The TPN starts to atrophy and becomes weaker. Pretty soon, our weak TPN can’t stay active for more than 10 minutes before the DMN takes over. While the authors compare TPN to an atrophied muscle, they don’t argue that those with ADHD simply need to strengthen their TPN.

Balance exercises?

What else helps strengthen our TPN? Interestingly, the authors say that strengthening your balance can help your focus. Another part of the brain, the cerebellum, has a connection with balance such that strengthening your balance also strengthens your cerebellum, which then helps address some ADHD issues. Hallowell relates a touching story about helping a boy in China overcome ADHD by doing things as simple as putting on socks while standing one leg at a time, juggling, and doing other balance exercises (in addition to a lot of hugs for Oxytocin). Zing Performance is all about addressing ADHD through balance.

While reading this section on balance, my mind raced to Amazon to buy some balance products. I almost bought a balance board but then thought better and got two skateboards instead — one for me and one for my daughter. I figured skateboarding would be more interesting and would teach balance in a more fun way. Well, the weather has been rainy (and now snowy) in Washington, but in our initial foray on the skateboards, we went down a small hill and my daughter crashed pretty hard. She hasn’t taken the skateboard out since then.

Even with this setback, I’m determined to incorporate the skateboard (a longboard) into a leg of my commute, so we’ll see if that works. Then when I figure out how to stop, we can have another go at skateboarding together. (I have a parallel agenda of fixing my atrophied right calf through skateboarding as well, but that’s another story.)

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Exercise

Hallowell and Ratey say other powerful non-medicinal factors for addressing ADHD include exercise, sleep, and nutrition. There are no surprises here — these factors seem to influence a lot of things. But for people with ADHD, getting exercise can help strengthen connective tissues in the brain. In “Cardiovascular Effects of ADHD Therapies,” Torres-Acosta et al explain:

Exercise has immediate and long-term positive effects on behavioral and cognitive measurements in patients with ADHD (42). The potential benefits of exercise for ADHD are likely due to the increase of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex during and after physical activity (43). Also, brain-derived neurotrophic factors, synaptic proteins, glutamate receptors, and insulin-like growth factors all rise during and after strenuous physical activity, which improves cognitive function by contributing to cell proliferation and neural plasticity (42).

Ahmed and Mohamed (44) conducted an RCT involving 84 students in a 10-week aerobic exercise program for students with ADHD. After 10 weeks, the [subjects] reported that aerobic exercise significantly improved attention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, anxiety, executive function, and social disorders … data indicate that the dose of physical activity for treating ADHD should entail bouts of high-intensity aerobic exercise lasting at least 30 min, at least 3 to 5 times per week…. (863-64)

In other words, physical exercise isn’t just a good idea. It’s like a “dosage” of natural medicine that fixes our internal chemical levels, receptors, and tissues in ways that reduce ADHD symptoms.

My wife’s daily hike has a noticeably uplifting effect on her. She always comes back in a GREAT mood, so I encourage her to go hiking as much as she can. My youngest daughter plays club soccer, and the exercise she gets is rejuvenating as well. When I once undertook an experiment of two hours of exercise a day, much of which simply involved walking, I felt notably boosted on the inside.

Hallowell and Ratey even recount a story of a high-achieving professional who, when he had to stop running due to a knee injury, found that his ADHD symptoms (which he didn’t know he had) surfaced in crippling ways and started to dismantle his life. A doctor prescribed him Ritalin to address the issue temporarily, and after his knee healed, he dropped the Ritalin and just started running again. The issue was fixed.

Unwrapping gifts

Hallowell and Ratey never reveal a single secret trick to fixing ADHD, and they are not averse to medicine by any means. The findings on medicine for treating ADHD are overwhelmingly positive (see “A 14-Month Randomized Clinical Trial of Treatment Strategies…”) Instead, the overall message of Hallowell and Ratey’s ADHD 2.0 is for people with ADHD to learn to “unwrap their gifts.” There are positive upsides to every negative trait with ADHD. ADHD provides “a complex set of contradictory or paradoxical tendencies,” the authors write (7). The authors say:

Of course, it’s true that most people who have ADHD or VAST are really bad at quite a few things (in which their noses get rubbed all the time), but usually they are, or could be, truly exceptional at one or two other activities. Toward that end, we take a strength-based approach to treating people in our practices. As we like to say, we do not treat disabilities, we help people unwrap their gifts. More exuberantly: We help identify superpowers! (63)

For example, in my family, those with ADHD often have a positive energy and charisma (an ability to let loose emotionally in fun ways) that draws people to them. The DMN might lead to worry but can also facilitate empathy. Many ADHD people are better at taking risks and often excel as entrepreneurs and in the financial markets. Some are good at processing chaotic situations with lots of incoming data, with the ability to remain calm under pressure, and so on. One time we had a flood in our house, and while I buckled with anxiety, my wife took charge and calmly called in a plumber to fix things.

The authors try to help reduce the stigma around ADHD, to get rid of the idea that it’s a learning “disorder” and to instead identify the strengths these traits lead to. Overall, this book is a must-read for anyone with ADHD or who wants to understand family members or friends with ADHD. As an added bonus, it’s only 135 pages and is well written.

In upcoming posts, I want to explore the DMN and TPN modes of the brain more to see what techniques exist for activating these two networks, more specifically, for activating the TPN.

References

Dobelli, Rolf. Stop reading the news: A manifesto for a happier, calmer and wiser life. Hachette UK, 2020.

Hallowell, Edward M., and John J. Ratey. ADHD 2.0: New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving with Distraction–from Childhood through Adulthood. Ballantine Books, 2022.

MTA Cooperative Group. “A 14-month randomized clinical trial of treatment strategies for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Archives of General Psychiatry 56.12 (1999): 1073-1086.

Torres-Acosta, Noel, et al. “Cardiovascular effects of ADHD therapies: JACC review topic of the week.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology 76.7 (2020): 858-866.

Next post

Continue to the last post in this series: Conclusion and takeaways from my Journey Away from Smartphones series.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation if you're looking for more info about that. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.

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