I’ve been thinking a lot about brains lately. As I’ve been working on the next edition of Creativity in the Classroom, I’ve been reading neurological research about creativity and learning—an interesting challenge, to be sure. As technology has changed, it is increasingly possible to “watch” the brain at work, examining which parts of the brain are most engaged during different activities.
One of the most fascinating stories is about the discovery of the “default network.” For years, neurobiologists focused their studies on executive processes, considering how we think about the tasks before us. Then, in one of those moments of accident or insight, someone thought to examine what the brain was doing between thinking about tasks and goals . Whereas early studies had looked at brain activity between tasks as “noise,” researchers now recognize this as the activity of a different and essential network, dubbed the default network. It is the network that is typically activated when we are awake but at rest—those moments when we stop the whirring and attention to our to-do lists and let our minds roam freely. And a drifting mind is an active mind!
While the executive networks deal with external goals and tasks, the default network deals with other things. It is essential for understanding ourselves, understanding another’s feelings, and developing empathy. The default network helps us remember the past, think about the future, imagine other options, understand stories, and make personal connections. It allows us to consider ethical implications of an idea or situation. Time taken to let the mind wander and reflect is not time wasted; it is valuable. The default network helps us make meaning. And operating with the executive networks, it helps create creativity as well.
This poses some interesting challenges in school. So much of our time is spent helping students learn to focus—must we also help them learn to un-focus on occasion? It seems so. More about that next time. In the meantime, take a little time to daydream!
PS Want to read about the default network? Here are two readable places to start.
Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2016). Emotions, learning, and the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Kaufman, S. B. (2013). Ungifted. Intelligence redefined. New York: Basic Books.