Dangerous Side of De-Activating the Default Mode Network

Self-referential thought (and the Default Mode Network activity it's tied to) can be a source of suffering, but it also plays an essential role in empathy, memory, and moral decision-making!

    You may have heard people in the spiritual world glorify diminished activity or even deactivation of the the DMN, since it diminishes our self-referential thought, and this is seen as the holy grail in much of nondual spirituality for example where the goal is a permanent loss of self and self referencing. You may not have heard however that research (see below) shows that DMN inactivity also can lead to decreased empathy, memory impairment, capacity for moral decision-making, and is even implicated in conditions like psychopathy.

    This highlights the importance of not glorifying the loss of self-referential thought as the holy grail of spiritual attainment, a panacea for freedom from suffering, the most advanced level of evolution, or the pinnacle of human well-being. While there are benefits to it, and individuals may perceive a sense of freedom through this loss, as I once did, a big blind spot lies in the potential negative impact on their relationships with others and even society at large when they experience significant memory issues, loss of empathy, and impaired moral decision-making, aspects often overlooked in discussions surrounding the pursuit of a diminished sense of self.

    It really is essential to acknowledge that the loss of self-referential thought, and the accompanying decreased activity in the DMN, when glorified without considering its potential consequences, can jeopardize our own wellbeing and that of others. By diminishing our memory, empathy, and moral decision-making in an extreme way, this can create an environment where the well-being and security of individuals end up compromised. A balanced portrayal of the outcome of DMN inactivity/loss of self really ought to go beyond just the benefits (of which there certainly are some) and how it can enhance personal well-being, to considering how it can potentially negatively impact the welfare of oneself and others too.

    An example of this can be seen in the many examples where individuals revered as fully enlightened and egoless have engaged in highly harmful abusive behavior, inflicting profound suffering upon others, including sexual and psychological abuse. I think these disturbing patterns need to be a poignant reminder of the potential consequences when loss of self-referential thought is celebrated without serious critical evaluation. It points to the need for a balanced approach to minimizing excessive rumination and the kind of self-referencing that is out of control and at unhealthy levels, without swinging to the opposite extreme of crippling it/extinguishing it entirely!

    Another thing related is how fundamentally flawed it is to claim, as many nondual teachers often do, that once someone is "fully realized," egoless, and ceases self-referencing, they can no longer cause harm to others. This I see as a preposterous fantasy and illusion, and for one it contradicts the fact that such a large number of those who have eroded their sense of being a person, and thought-based activity, still engage in highly harmful actions that cause profound suffering to others, and I don't see this as very surprising!

    Along with this, the notion that resting in your "true nature" and acting from/as "pure consciousness" alone guarantees actions that benefit others is yet another fantasy, and it's telling that some of those who claim to have deeply eroded their sense of self and self-referencing often make emphatic claims devaluing or invalidating the importance of indivdiuals and societies coming to some semblance of agreed upon moral and ethical guidelines. This seems to give more credence to the findings that high levels of decreased self-referencing can lead to a loss of empathy and consideration of what constitutes ethical behavior (based on, for example, the degree to which it inflicts suffering on others). Hopefully this gives some food for contemplation and encouragement for a more balanced discussion of the benefits and negative consequences of seeking to radically diminish self-referential thinking and simultaneously, DMN activity.

Research examples:




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