Putting the Wizards to Work

img_1963Growing up in Minnesota, I think I got the proverbial Protestant Work Ethic deeply installed in my neural operating system. There is a part of me that feels distinctly uncomfortable unless I am being Productive And Responsible At All Times. Which can, of course, lead to a feeling of being ground into a fine powder as I try to wrestle my ever-burgeoning to-do list into submission.

So when I learned about the Task Positive Network and the Default Mode Network (covered in more depth in the link) of the brain, it was huge relief. These two networks are “anti-correlated,” that is, they almost always fire one at a time: when Task goes on, Default goes off, and vice versa.

Task activates when we are focused, paying attention to external stimuli, planning and actively figuring out how to do something. I think of this network like my team of engineers. They are hugely helpful at solving logical problems, figuring out the steps to take, planning my day productively, and so on.

But sometimes you need magic instead of engineering. And this is where the Default Mode Network can help. Here is where we have meaning, dreams, vision, insight, introspection and other people’s perspectives.

I think of the Default Mode Network as my team of magicians, living deep in a cave and highly sensitive. Whenever I look too directly at them or try to force them to work, they quit. They can only cast their spells when I am not paying attention. And the best thing is to give them an assignment and go do something else that is not task-focused.

My magicians like it when I go for a walk in the woods, drive in the car (the motion soothes them), take a shower or bath, paint, draw, listen to instrumental music, nap. And when I give them an assignment beforehand, such as “please figure out how to teach the Task and Default networks in an experiential way,” they never disappoint. (In this case, I saw an image of a river with bridges, and developed a process called “Crossing the River” to intentionally activate each network during a coaching appointment.)

We all have both of these networks, but in today’s task-driven world, the power of the Default Mode Network is often underrated. My rule is, whenever I get stuck, can’t figure something out, or there doesn’t seem to be a logical answer, take the job away from the engineers, give it to the magicians, and wait.

The Power of Dreaming, The Power of Action

Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.

~Anias Nin

Ever wondered why some people seem to lose relationship connection when they are focused on getting things done? Or why some creative dreamers can’t seem to move anything forward? Ever wonder why you get some of your best ideas and “aha” moments in the shower or daydreaming on a walk? Well, guess what? Like many human mysteries, there is a brain explanation.

The Default Network (DMN) and the Task Positive Network (TPN) are two distinct neural networks in the brain. The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is Black Horseat wakeful rest. It’s called “default” because it is the network that is activated unless we are specifically engaged in goal-directed activity and external input, the realm of the TPN. Probably one of the most interesting aspects of these two networks is that when Default is active, Task is not. And when Task is active, Default is not. Part of each network’s function is to shut the other down.

I like to think of the two networks this way: imagine your brain is a horse. Task Mode is when you put blinders on your horse, hitch it up to a cart, and drive it forward. It just pays attention to what is right in front of it, and it’s main job is to DO. It’s not interested in anything that isn’t relevant to the job or task.

Black StallionDefault, on the hand, is when you unhitch the horse (your brain), take the blinders off, and let it loose in a field with nothing in particular to do. The horse, while roaming the field, finds many interesting things, often makes new connections between existing information (“aha” moments), and is able understand others and itself.

Here’s a few specifics about each network (by the way, it’s important to note that while some of the aspects below may sound similar to Right and Left Hemisphere operations, each network actually includes both):

Default Mode Network Task Positive Network

Envisioning the future

Long-term memory

Gauging other’s perspectives

Theory of mind (understanding others)


Self-referential thought

DMN is spread widely throughout brain

Focus on task

Actively paying attention (external)


Reacting to and working with sensory information

Short-term (working) memory


Abstract reasoning

TPN is more concentrated in pre-frontal cortex

In today’s busy world, most of us don’t allow ourselves enough Default Mode time, and it’s important. I really saw this when I was driving across country after taking my only kid to his freshman year at college. I was using my drive as a time to listen to an audio book, which meant my brain was actively paying attention to external stimuli. And yet, I had just dropped my only son off to his new adventure, and was starting a new one of my own. I realized that I needed to process how I felt. So I turned off the book and just drove, letting my horse of a brain wander in the field. After about half an hour, all sorts of metaphors came to me — I saw taking my son to college was like the end of a really really good book. One you don’t want to end. I cried a bit over that. Then I saw that now there were two books going forward. His and mine. And we were big characters in each other’s story in these new books, but not in the way we were in the first book.

Giving myself Default Mode time really helped me integrate this big change, and by the time I got home, I felt much more ready to embark on my new life without a child at home. The “aha” moments that the Default Network gives us are precious, important, and don’t happen when we are focused on task.

I find with my clients that this tends to resonate — we probably all need a bit more intentional daydreaming in our lives. Knowing about these two networks may help convince people to let their horses loose now and then to find the flowers and other treasures in the field.