Attractor States and Default Modes – Train Your Brain to Shift

By Dr. Keith Witt
January 23, 2013
magnet_heart-150x150 You get up early and climb into the shower. The water runs hot and silky over your body, relaxing as you shampoo and soap. What are you thinking and feeling? If you’re a naturally “up” person, the coming day looks pretty good. If you’re a depressed person, the world weighs you down with obligations, shameful failures, and certain disappointments. If you’re an angry person, you’re ruminating on injustices and personal slights, with lots of nasty stories about assholes who did you wrong. If you’re an anxious person, you’re dreading the day. Why? Because that’s what you do–worry. If we could choose–you know, press an “Up,” “Down,” “Pissed,” or “Anxious” button with instant results–we’d all press “Up.” Sadly, most of us spend too much time anxious, angry, or depressed–feeling powerless to change. But there’s hope! We can train our brains to shift from bummed to grateful.

How can we liberate our “up” selves?

The first step in lightening up is accepting and managing our darkness. A big part of the price of feeling better turns out to be acknowledging and helping depressed, angry, and anxious self-parts. For instance, you could confidently tell yourself, “Yes, I’m seeing the world through gloomy glasses, but I know it’s a brighter place.” Now that you’ve established your dark outlook as a false belief (see blog #71 – False Beliefs Completely Suck) you can focus on gratitude and positive anticipation. Socrates really nailed it with, “Know thyself,” but should have added, “Train your brain to optimistic explanatory styles.” The key is practice. Generate gratitude and positive explanations for yourself and the world, and maintain those states as much as you can. For instance, what are you grateful for right now? Your husband?…Wife?…Kids?…Friends?..Spiritual path?…Job?…friends?..spiritual path?…job?…house?…country?…health? Feel gratitude in your heart and practice it all day long!

Attractor states and default modes:

Where do you naturally go when there’s not much else happening? Sometimes I space out looking at clouds, somehow up there with them. That habitual place my brain takes me is called an attractor state. Up early in the shower with not much else on your mind, your brain coasts into rambling about the present, past, or future. This brain state, called the default mode by neuroscientists, scans everything inside and outside us, and associates—all the time pumping emotions and beliefs to sustain some default mode attractor state. Often we ruminate about problems and solutions–after all, survival comes first and in the wilds where we evolved you can’t be too careful. Fortunately, most all of us don’t live where death can lurk behind any bush, so we don’t need to constantly be vigilant for life threats. More commonly, default modes drift from one story to another…about the breakfast table, the afternoon tennis match, the way the light shines through the dust, “I wonder how Zoe’s doing?” “This narcissus smells so good,”–stuff like that. Since mostly we are safe and secure, we can practice feeling safe–consciously noticing how fine everything is at this moment–until that’s where we naturally go. We can train our brains to be more “Up.” In next week’s blog, Attractor States: Part 2, we learn more happiness tools and why dogs are lucky.

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