Sharpening Your Knife

I had an interesting realization about my Task Positive Network (TPN) today. This is the network of the brain that is activated when we are actively paying attention, focusing on the task at hand, using short-term memory, and in the present moment. It’s associated with a form of “flow state” and much of the time, we’re happier when we are using this network. It’s anti-correlated with the Default Mode Network (DMN), which, while it can take us into a spiral of rumination and anxiety, also has its own gifts and benefits. One is, as I will explain in more detail below, the ability to give us a sort of mental reboot when we need it. (For more on the two networks, see The Power of Dreaming, the Power of Action, and Putting the Wizards to Work in this blog.)

I was working away on notes for a class I teach to my most advanced students (this month it is all about gender differences in the brain). Pulling things together from a whole slew of scientific articles, and making some sort of sense out of it all is one of the most interesting and cognitively demanding things I do. I love it. Until I don’t. In pondering why this is and what is happening, I came up with a metaphor. For me, using my TPN is like sculpting with a really well-honed knife. It’s so fun carving here and carving there, watching something cool emerge. But at some point, the knife gets dull and I just can’t shape what I want to shape any longer. It doesn’t matter that I have a deadline, it doesn’t matter that I have the time to do it, it doesn’t even matter that I am enjoying the work. I just “can’t even,” as the youngsters say.

That happened to me today about 3 hours in. I was having a blast, so intrigued by what I was reading, making a table to explain things, pulling out interesting points. It was all making sense and I was flying along. And then–my knife was dull. I wanted to keep carving. I really did. I just couldn’t. Nothing was coming together in a way that made sense and I was having trouble holding things in my short-term memory. My TPN was done.

So I watched a silly YouTube video for a while, took a short nap, got something to drink, and wandered aimlessly around my house annoying the cats. That break with nothing particular to focus on activated my DMN, the network that revs up immediately when we stop focusing in the present moment and on the task at hand. I think of it as the knife sharpener, the time out. Stop trying to carve with a dull knife, I told myself, you know that isn’t how you get sharp again. And indeed, this little break sharpened my knife enough to finish the last few pages and wrap it up.

I love neuroscience. Without this understanding of these two networks, I might have tried to push through with my dull knife of a brain (because again, I was enjoying the work) or I might have thought I wasn’t actually smart enough to pull it all together (thus leading to a not very pleasant internal conversation). Instead, the cats got some extra attention and the project ultimately got completed with a nice freshly sharpened knife. (And hey, the knife was even sharp enough to write this blog!)