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June 13th, 2020
What is the obstacle when trying to figure something out? Is it different each time? Does it depend on the context? Or is there something subtle and pervasive that unifies all of these situations?
Much of what it means to be human has to do with figuring out how to get out of our own way. So much progress is working through frustration with the self, but what exactly is the obstacle here?
Neuroscience would suggest that it has to do with the default mode network. This is a set of regions in the brain that are always on except for unusual circumstances. This network is the neurological basis for the self in terms of autobiographical information, self reference and one’s emotions. In addition it handles the operation when we think of others and the past and any future plans.
Indeed, it seems to handle quite a lot, but all of this can be roughly grouped. It all has to do with memory to some degree. Everything it handles is based on what we’ve learned or experienced in the past. Plans about the future even fit into this category, since such plans are primarily remembered plans. Surely these statements about the DMN are pretty general, but it’s clear that the Default Mode Network is missing a huge component of our experience, and that is, the experience itself: the present moment.
What’s even more interesting is that when people are in a ‘flow’ state, the default mode network isn’t as activated as it usually is. It’s influence is markedly less. In addition to this, there are factions, primarily the military that have been developing techniques for deep brain stimulation that help a person enter a flow state on command. Such cranial stimulation also decreases the activation of the default mode network. Psychedelic drugs, meditation, and even exercise also toggle the activation of the default mode network, pulling back its influence on our experience.
While our understanding of the neurology here is still in its infancy, it seems that we experience the present moment with a bit more clarity, fluidity and effectiveness when the default mode network plays less of a role – when it’s out of our way.
Returning to those moments when there is an obstacle in our way while trying to figure something out, we can wonder if it isn’t something like this default mode network.
We can phrase the conundrum a bit differently to get at it.
Let’s say that you’ve been trying to solve one particular problem for a few hours. You’ve tried dozens of ideas that you’ve come up with along the way, but none of them have worked. How does a person generally feel after this sort of slog? Many people would be ready to call it quits, exhausted by the ordeal. But why? Where does the exhaustion come from?
What if we were able to remove the memory of those attempts? Dozens of failures suddenly erased from the mind. How would we look at the problem still at hand? How would we feel about it? Would we still feel the same mental exhaustion if we couldn’t actually remember the frustrating slog that’s gone nowhere?
It might be that the default mode network, or which ever part of the brain it may be, is bogging us down with such memory.
How much of our life is clogged up from moving forward, not because of some ever present inability, but merely because of memories that weigh us down and keep us tethered like anchors lodged in the past?
Wonder now for a moment about children, and how quickly they can learn. Certainly their brains are functioning quite differently compared to an adult because of it’s development, but could another aspect of their learning be aided by the fact that they simply don’t have much memory of failure?
Could it be that the present moment, in terms of stimulation and sheer information still outweighs the influence of memory?
What if you could forget all sense of frustration, hardship and failure? Would your ability to move forward increase? Our ability to figure something out, to learn, this is the skill of discovery. It rides on our ability to wander through the landscape of a problem, reimagining it over and over, and by doing so forgetting how we were thinking of it yesterday or the day before. To look at something with fresh eyes requires an ability to forget how we used to see it.
Play is discovery unburdened by memory.
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