Know How Many Modes Your Brain Has?


Take a walk with a child. Notice how he stops to examine each bug on the sidewalk? Maybe a ray of sunlight flashes on the mica of an otherwise nondescript rock, capturing his attention and fascination. Now, what is occupying your own mind? Most likely, you don’t notice the bug or the rock. Your mind instead is wandering over a list of chores you need to tackle at home, unfinished work on your desk, financial worries and health concerns.

Our busy, busy brains

That cauliflower-shaped organ in our heads is home to more than 90 billion nerve cells. Even when we are asleep, our brain’s networks fire off like the Fourth of July, processing information, creating and consolidating our experiences. During our waking hours, thoughts arise unbidden, cluttering our minds. Mayo Clinic physician Amit Sood likens our laundry list of concerns to files and says that we may have has many as 150 open files at any one time.

The two modes of your mind

The mind of your young walking companion is sharply focused on bugs and rocks. They are still a novelty to him. To your adult brain, these objects from nature are commonplace and don’t capture your attention. If something unusual, or something that touches you emotionally, came down the street, your mind would switch from its wandering mode to the focused one of your companion.

We switch between these modes throughout the day. According to Dr. Sood, the wandering mind is our default mode, the one we are in 50 to 80 percent of the time. Much of the thoughts processed in this mode are neutral or negative. You may be thinking about an upcoming appointment at the hair salon or worrying about the funny noise coming from your car engine. You are not, in the wandering mind mode, focusing on the task at hand. It is necessary to think about future events, and useful to consider things in your past, but often your thoughts serve no useful purpose and become like junk food. Too much is unhealthy.

Multi-tasking is taxing your resources

Your brain doesn’t recognize the difference between imagined and experienced events. If you’ve been in a car accident, the event will trigger a stress response. If you imagine being in a car accident, your brain will respond with the same stress response. Dwelling on problems, creating scenarios in your mind of what could happen, switching between tasks that require your conscious attention will cause mental fatigue. Too much jumping around will make it difficult to do any task well, and your ability to experience things meaningfully is diminished. This strain on your mental resources will make you anxious, put you at risk for depression and may even contribute to the dementia.

Rein in your wandering mind

It is not possible, or desirable, to operate in focused mode 100 percent of the time. However, you can train your brain to focus more often, reducing stress-creating clutter and allowing you to more deeply engage with your own life.

  • Reduce distractions — close down your email program, log out of social media and turn off the television. While these technologies are great for keeping in contact with others, they are weakening your contact with yourself by continually diverting your thoughts. Schedule times to check your email and social media sites and stick to the schedule.
  • Clear out the inbox in your mind — if you have a list of things to do, running them through your mind in an endless loop is not helpful.  Commit your “to do” list to paper, prioritize each item and schedule when you will address each one. You have just cleared them out of your mind and don’t need to think about them again until the appointed time.
  • Understand your own habits – are you full of pep first thing in the morning, or is early evening your time to shine? Understand when and how you best operate. Use your least productive times to take care of tasks that don’t require a lot of brain power. Your peak operating times are when you should tackle projects that require your full concentration.
  • Train your brain — how you think becomes a habit. Habits can be broken and replaced with better habits. It takes intentional effort. If you are working on a project and the question, “What should I make for dinner?” pops into your head, push that thought away. You can deal with dinner once you finish your present task. You may want to use a formal time management system, such as the Pomodoro Technique, to develop this habit. It takes practice, but eventually your mind will be better able to focus.

Spending more time in the focused mode will increase your productivity. You will also experience the joy and fulfillment that comes from fully engaging with an activity. Your mind will still wonder, but you can snap back into the moment, release the stress of frenetic thoughts and truly live your life, rather than stumble through the day in a confusion of competing demands.