On Awakening: Objective Measures & The Scientific Evidence

The Default Mode Network

The brain regions that are active at rest have been dubbed the "default mode network." It is "most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering."

It has been implicated in a variety of functions, including:

Wikipedia calls it "the neurological basis for the self" and mentions that it is sometimes referred to as the task-negative network, as it is suppressed during externally directed attention, i.e. when one is focused on achieving some goal.

The parallels here between the DMN and awakenings are remarkable. Awakenings, near universally, include changes to the self along with a reduction in self-referential thoughts and those about the past & future. The realization of anattā or "no-self" is one of the core teachings of Buddhism, & meditation is in large part about strengthening attention.

So, what is the relationship between awakening and the default mode network?

Drug-Induced Mystical Experience

I have written before about the overlap between mystical and psychedelic experience.

Trauma-Induced Mystical Experience

Awakening & Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory

Here is Richard from the Actual Freedom Trust describing how he lacks a mind's eye:

‘The entire imaginative/intuitive faculty has vanished. I literally cannot visualise, form images, envision, ‘see in my mind’s eye’, envisage, picture, intuit, feel, fall into a reverie, daydream or in any way, shape or form imaginatively access anything other than directly apprehending what is happening just here right now. I could not form a mental picture of something ‘other’ if my life depended upon it. I literally cannot make images … whereas in my earlier years ‘I’ could get a picture in ‘my mind’s eye’ of ‘my’ absent mother, wife, children and so on … or the painting ‘I’ was going to paint, or the coffee-table ‘I’ was going to build, or the route ‘I’ was going to take in ‘my’ car or whatever. If I were to close my eyes and ‘visualise’ now, what happens is the same velvety-smooth darkness – as looking into the infinite and eternal space of the universe at night – that has been the case for all these years now. I cannot visualise, imagine, conceptualise … when I recall my childhood, my young manhood, my middle ages or yesterday it is as if it were a documentary on television but with the picture turned off (words only) or like reading a book of someone else’s life (…) I can intellectually know what a cow is like in that I can draw a reasonable facsimile; yet as I am drawing I cannot visualise what the finished drawing will be like … it becomes apparent as the drawing progresses’.

This phenomenon is also seen in those who possess a "severely deficient autobiographical memory" (spooky medical jargon, of course), as described in Palombo et al., 2015:

Here we report data from three healthy, high functioning adults with the reverse pattern: lifelong severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM) with otherwise preserved cognitive function. Their self-reported selective inability to vividly recollect personally experienced events from a first-person perspective was corroborated by absence of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and event-related potential (ERP) biomarkers associated with naturalistic and laboratory episodic recollection, as well as by behavioral evidence of impaired episodic retrieval, particularly for visual information.

Notably, this impairment is not limited to autobiographical visual memory, just as Richard describes:

Visual memory as assessed by the Rey Complex Figure Test (RCFT) was the only measure in the battery in which the SDAM cases were consistently impaired. At immediate recall, two SDAM cases' scores were classified as borderline impaired and one (C.C.) was severely impaired. After a 30 min delay, scores for all cases were in the severely impaired range (see Fig. 1).

With the exception of complex figure recall, standard neuropsychological measures of recognition, cued recall, and free recall were normal and even superior in some of the SDAM cases. The participants were otherwise unimpaired.

I notice this in my own progression, that there seems to be less and less imaginal content and instead an immersion into the present. I think this probably must result in some deficits and creativity strikes me as a plausible candidate, though thus far the increased power and fullness of attention seems to more than compensate. (I'm not convinced this is inevitable, given Burbea's teachings about the imaginal.)

This sentiment (that the water is fine) is echoed by both Gary Weber and Actual Freedom Richard, who are much further along than I am:

With regard to business life, in my experience, functioning in the work world goes on with enhanced clarity and creativity as one reduces the chatter of the self-referential mind. Every interaction can be met without a prior agenda or personal history, and with detachment, so the situation can be seen clearly just as it is at that moment and performance can be what will appear as extraordinary.

—Gary Weber, Happiness Beyond Thought

The brain thinks perfectly well without ‘visually imaging’ … much, much better than any ‘I’ can do. It all started over 20 years ago when the ‘I’ who was made a living as an artist … ‘my’ greatest work came when ‘I’ disappeared and the painting painted itself in what is sometimes known as an ‘aesthetic experience’. This is the difference between art and craft – and ‘I’ was very good as a craftsman – but craft became art only when ‘I’ was not present. All art is initially a representation and, as such, is a reflection funnelled by the artist so that he/she can express what they are experiencing in order to see for themselves – and show to others – what is going on ‘behind the scenes’ as it were. However, when one is fully engrossed in the act of creating art – wherein the painting paints itself – the art-form takes on a life of its own and ceases to be a representation during the event. It is its own actuality. One can only stand in amazement and wonder – which is not to negate the very essential patiently acquired skills and expertise – and this marvelling is what was experienced back when I was a normal person.

—Richard, "On Creativity and Art"

So what?


My suspicion, then, is that some awakenings correspond to taking the "default" out of the default mode network. Instead, the awakened mind stabilizes at a different set point. What this set point entails depends on the quirks of the meditator's genetics and the specifics of their practice.

Why bother? The motivation for this transition comes from the DMN's capacity to produce suffering: Depressive rumination, often characterized by an excess of self-referential thought, has been linked to an overactive DMN, one that doesn't "shut up" during tasks. Mind wandering, too, is associated with unhappiness: people are less happy during the ~50% of the day spent mind-wandering, and "time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness."

Indeed, one study noted that participants would rather be electrically shocked than sit alone with their thoughts.

But the default mode network has to be good for something, right?

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

Chesterton's fence

Recall the classes of mental activity that the default mode network is associated with: self-referential thinking, the self-narrative, mind-wandering, mental "time travel" to the past or future, and autobiographical memory.

There are a couple of review papers on the adaptive benefit of mind-wandering (but it looks like the research is in its early days):

You are faced, then, with the Goldilock's question: ought I have more mind-wandering, less mind-wandering, or is my current amount just right?

Practical Gleanings

More sleepiness, more mind-wandering, more internally focused attention, more self-focus -> more DMN activity.

More wakefulness, less mind-wandering, more externally focused attention, less self-focus -> less DMN activity.

Further Reading

Models of Consciousness

Brain as Prediction Engine

I've gotten my hands on a copy of Surfing Uncertainty, after being turned onto it by Scott's review, and have been reading through it with an eye toward, "How can this theory be applied toward meditation?"

The book's primary thesis is that the brain is best understood as a prediction organ:

To deal rapidly and fluently with an uncertain and noisy world, brains like ours have become masters of prediction—surfing the waves of noisy and ambiguous sensory stimulation by, in effect, trying to stay just ahead of them. A skilled surfer stays 'in the pocket': close to, yet just ahead of the place where the wave is breaking. This provides power and, when the wave breaks, it does not catch her. The brain's task is not dissimilar. By constantly attempting to predict the incoming sensory signal we become able—in ways we shall soon explore in detail—to learn about the world around us and to engage that world in thought and action.

The impetus for such a theory comes from, well, first consider the plight of a baby, here captured masterfully by William James:

The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion.

The idea is that, to a baby, the world isn't "the world", but instead appears as an undifferentiated mass of sensory data. Just noise without meaning, a chaotic, fluxing, experiential soup. The task of learning, then, is to make sense of the senses, to squeeze the signal out of this noise, to create "the world."

[E]veryone who comes into contact with a child is a teacher who incessantly describes the world to him, until the moment when the child is capable of perceiving the world as it is described.

—Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan

Remind you of anything? Learning an explanatory model from data is the entire point of statistics. The question that naturally arises, then, is "Might the brain be a statistical machine?" An observation which Wikipedia helpfully informs me dates back to at least 1860s "with the work of Hermann Helmholtz in experimental psychology [who modeled] the brain's ability to extract perceptual information from sensory data […] in terms of probabilistic estimation."

Might, then, the brain be a statistical machine?

I've the vague impression that there's good evidence for "yes" across a bunch of disciplines but reviewing said evidence sounds tedious so I'm just going to give you my off-the-cuff take, you know, as a highly qualified, professional web surfer.

When it comes to teaching machines to learn, our best-in-class methods are "statistical machinery"-approaches, often possessing a theory-core at least adjacent to Bayesian math voodoo. The argument for "yes", then, is that of structural realism: just as we ought to regard our best physical theories as true, we similarly ought to believe that our best theories of machine perception reveal something fundamental about ourselves.

What does that imply for meditators?


Attention Schema Theory

The theory proposed in this book can be summarized in five words: awareness is an attention schema.

—Michael Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain

Is This Plausible?


  1. Quoted in Surfing Uncertainty: "If memory is fallible and prone to reconstructive errors, that may be because it is oriented towards the future at least as much as towards the past… similar neural systems are involved in both autobiographical memory and future thinking, and both rely on a form of imagination."

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