I Imagine, Therefore I Am: The Default Mode Network and Fiction

I Imagine, Therefore I Am: The Default Mode Network and Fiction

By: Reed Berkowitz

Many of us think of ourselves as essentially rational and logical. Clear thinking individuals, only sometimes descending into daydreams or fantasy, as time permits. Rational minds grounded in the hard cold realities around us.

There is a growing body of science to suggest that this is just the opposite of the way things are.

Recent research suggests a likely scenario in which the mind lives in a default fictional daydream state, rousing to the challenges of logic and problem-solving only when needed, and descending again into fantasies and simulations given even a minute or two of freedom. A model of consciousness in which the true default state of the human mind is internal fantasy and fiction.


The sheer volume of fiction that we engage with as humans is staggering. The average adult is exposed to more than eleven hours a day of total media, with an average of six hours a day dedicated to pure linear video, such as television, movies, and streaming video. For over half of our day we live in highly mediated and/or fictional spaces. Even the forms and types of media have exploded recently with many new types of fiction-telling media/platforms, such as immersive plays, augmented/mixed reality, experience fiction, ARGs, LARPs, location based computer games, etc. 

Fiction and media interaction is now one of the primary human activities. The time we spend watching TV, playing video games, and engaging in media is only rivaled in amount of time by sleep and work. Even at work, or as part of our work, we engage in media.

Still, fiction is commonly equated with the word “entertainment.” Anything that consumes this much time and energy has to be something besides entertainment. It has to be something far more important. 

Even the fact that we can engage in fiction at all is part of the mounting evidence that fiction is an important evolutionary advantage.

In the last 10 to 20 years, new scientific information has revealed intriguing new neurological systems that we believe are connected to the drive for fiction. In fact, we believe that fiction itself arose from the processes that are handled by these complex neurological networks. 

The data that is coming in is intriguing. And it posits the idea that our default mode of thinking is actually, in many ways, fictional. It may be, in fact, that we are not consuming more fiction then we used to. It may only be that we are outsourcing our fiction from these biological systems into a more complex, and finely-tuned semantic system. But the drive for fiction may be hard-coded into our very brains.

The Default Mode Network

The default mode network (DMN) was discovered essentially by accident. During studies relating to energy used by the brain, it was found that the brain uses almost as much energy “at rest” as it does during complicated mental tasks. Inquiries into this  mystery revealed something entirely unexpected. Researchers trying to create standards for a baseline of mental activity began to notice something interesting. A network in the brain was discovered that became more active when there was no direct task and the mind was “at rest.” It reduced its activity during goal-oriented tasks, and then became active again when the tasks were complete. It turned out the human mind was thinking all the time, whether we knew it or not.

Dr. Marcus Raichle in 2001 became the first researcher to use the term “default mode network” during his influential work to define this system and, ever since, this new network of the brain has been under increasing study. 

Here is how Raichle describes his discovery during an interview in 2015:

It was really surprising that, after the demanding tasks were completed, activity in these areas of the cortex increased again. The brain seemed to revert back to a default activity level, which is there in the absence of a specific, ongoing, external task. So, we decided to take a closer look at it. We now understand it as a special network in the brain that, paradoxically, is more active when we are not involved in a goal-directed task. We conventionally tend to think that when we are not busy doing such things, our brain is ‘free,’ or more passive, and we automatically think that we primarily use the brain to solve difficult tasks or control goal-directed activities. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that the brain is actually just as busy when we relax as when we focus on difficult tasks. When we relax, however, the default mode network is the most active area of the brain.

- Dr. Marcus Raichle

The question is, what could we be thinking about when we’re not thinking about anything? Why should it take up so much energy? Why is this DMN so important that it’s always churning even when there’s “nothing to do”?

To sum it up, the DMN is all about us. Research is still on-going and every year new discoveries about the nature of the DMN are being made but all evidence points to the idea that this is the part of the brain that handles reflective and internal thoughts about our lives.

It is self-referential and not usually activated by outside stimulus. It deals with internal mentation. It’s where we think about ourselves.

Among the many things we know about the DMN is that it is where we simulate reality. It is where we create simulations that mentally project us forwards and backwards in time so that we imagine possible futures and think about possible actions we might take in different possible scenarios. We recreate scenes of the past and how we might have felt if we had done things differently. It is the home of Theory of Mind, where, by looking into our own feelings, we try to figure out what other people might be feeling or thinking. It’s where we imagine ourselves doing fantastic things we know we’ll never do, going places we know we’ll never go.

Among the terms research uses to categorize this hard-to-define mental space are “mind wandering,” “spontaneous thought,” and plain old “daydreaming.” There is a good chance that many reading this article have already “drifted” into the DMN once or twice.

Research by Killingsworh and Gilbert (2010) shows that almost half our waking time (and during sleep), we are, at some level disengaged from the present and are mind wandering. Even when we are specifically engaged in other activities, it has been shown that we are thinking of something else a minimum of 30% of the time. The levels of mind wandering and the frequencies vary from person to person, task to task but, no matter how you look at it, mind wandering is a major human activity.

Living Dream

What it feels like to mind wander is common to us all. I wait at a red light and I drift slightly, thinking of my “to do” list and how I have to get the oil checked on the car. The only time that it makes sense to bring it in would be on my lunch hour, but then I couldn’t drive my co-worker to lunch. Now, before I realize it, I am creating a mini-simulation in my mind. A scenario develops where I imagine I tell my co-worker about the car and she’s unreasonably upset at me. That’s not really like her, though. I tone it down and try it again, this time at the office. Actually, it makes more sense if I just tell her I’m going to be without a car a few days ahead so she can make other plans. While I am imagining that conversation, the light turns green and I focus on driving again. Or maybe this goes on until I reach my destination, not really remembering how I got there.

The truth is, we are telling ourselves, and imagining, stories about ourselves all the time. The contents range from fanciful daydreams of winning the lottery, to nightmare scenarios of our own death, to the simple worries of the day. It is a running narrative in our mind, helping us to feel, to focus, to prepare, and to reflect.

It sounds a lot like fiction. It sounds a lot like the purpose of fiction. These little stories that we tell ourselves weave in and out with our own perception of ourselves. Because, although the DMN Is often associated with self-reflective thought, theory of mind, scenario planning, perceptual time traveling, and daydreaming, it is also associated with narrative, storytelling, and fiction. 

In fact, although the default mode network is primarily an internally-focused network that is not generally triggered by external stimulus, fiction is a major exception. The default mode network is highly active during participation in fictions:

Thus, the overlap between reading and simulation is perhaps unsurprising, given that narratives often invoke vivid descriptive language to transport readers to far-off places, and engage readers with characters’ actions, interactions, and mental states. Both the simulation of physical spaces and of mental entities provides a plausible explanation for why reading reliably activates the default network.

-Tamir et al., 2016

Our hypothesis is that this is because fiction is not essentially external, but internal. It serves a similar purpose to the DMN. Fiction is, or is similar to, the externalization of an internal process, an internal process that helps us to define ourselves, better understand others, and clarify our point of view. The research supporting this idea looks promising:

It may seem that being in a resting state compared to engaging with fiction are activities which overlap only minimally. However, these descriptions [mini narratives] have in common that they relate to narrative construction: internally focused cognition, mind-wandering, and mental model construction are all forms of meaning making, or of story-telling (albeit in a non-constructed manner). From this perspective it should not come as a surprise that areas that are prominent hubs when people do not engage in a specific task (“rest”), are also prominent areas when participants are taken in by a narrative context. [...] Perhaps, building a situation model is what humans typically do when not engaged in a particular and specific task. The “resting state” thus would better be viewed as an active state of being, of narrative or situation model construction.

-Jacobs & Willems, 2018, p. 150

We have a finely tuned fiction engine churning in our mind all the time, complete with time travel, spatial simulation, and theory of mind. We have the basic hardware to create elaborate and repeating narrative scenarios and we are doing so ALL THE TIME. We spin these stories to ourselves, about ourselves, as our default mode of being. We can imagine the possible futures, alternate pasts, and different ways our lives and our selves might be. All the hardware is there and working. All that was needed for true “fiction” was the rise of art and language for us to be able to communicate the stories in our own minds to the minds of others.

Just as experiencing, thinking, and imagining change us, it has also been shown that fiction changes us, and in ways that non-fiction does not. Studies have been done with participants reading fiction vs. non-fiction pieces that are the same length and difficulty, on the same topic, and have been judged to be equally interesting. The group reading the fictional story “experienced significantly greater change in self-reported experience of personality traits than the control group” (Djikic et al., 2009, p. 24).

The explanation is that, even though we are reading about other people, fiction is “reflective” and allows us to project our own feelings and ideas into the fictional simulation. Although the characters and events may be foreign to us, the stories still affect us emotionally and are still, in many ways, about us. What is even more interesting is the self-driven nature of this projection. People did not change in a way directed by the author, but by themselves. One of the authors of the study cited above describe it like this:

We have found that in reading short stories, though not non-fictional pieces, people find that personal memories come to mind, so they think of some aspect of their lives in the context of the story. This is more likely to have occurred in this study while reading Chekhov's story than in reading the courtroom account. So, fiction enables people to imagine their selfhood into circumstances other than the usual. Thereby they extend their sense of themselves. This is not persuasion. It does not occur in a particular direction dictated by the writer of the story. As readers loosen up their own personality, perhaps to become more like a character in a story, or as they mentally enter situations other than those they are normally in, they change to become more themselves.”

-Oatley, 2010, para 4

This merges seamlessly with the actions of the Default Mode Network. The inner mentating, simulating, theory of mind, etc. Fiction is like an externalization of the DMN experience. Language gives us a way of sharing our daydreams with each other, of choosing which internal experiences to activate and explore. Now the ideas that come bubbling to the surface while gazing at a tree or deciding between two paths in a forest, can be written down, and shared. Insights passed on. Perspectives explored together. An evolutionary process continues to evolve into fiction and art.

We Imagine, Therefore We Are

As our world becomes increasingly mediated, this process becomes even more vital. Our perspective matters more and more to our survival. How we approach daily tasks has more to do with our point of view and attitude than it does with our bodies. How do we ask for that raise? How do we attack a new programming challenge? How do we organize our next project? Each day, we are exposed to an enormous amount of media trying to influence us purposefully, like advertising/propaganda, or passively, like our friend’s social media feeds. Engaging in our own chosen media course-corrects us. It’s a battle out there and it matters more and more to us.

Not only could the DMN be informing, changing, and building our consciousness, it may also be the actual neurological corollary of our consciousness.

Just as we project ourselves into the future to imagine how we will react in situations likely or unlikely to occur, we also project ourselves into stories, games, and other forms of fiction. But what if it is more than that? What if the same tools that the DMN uses to create this mini-consciousness are also the tools used to create our actual consciousness. Because the DMN may not be just the tool that informs our consciousness it may actually be the seat of consciousness itself.

In fact, in a very real way, our consciousness may be a simulation or fiction itself. 

The evidence that humans are biologically wired for fiction, or something very close to fiction, is exciting. The fact is that dreaming, imagining far-off places and future events, remembering and re-inventing the past, telling ourselves endless stories of ourselves is such a Darwinian imperative that the brain is literally doing it almost all the time.

Fiction is important. Fiction is not just entertainment, but how we build the fiction of ourselves. Who we are, our ego, our consciousness, is tied to these very processes.

Reed Berkowitz is the Director of Curiouser LLC and has 25+ years of experience designing and researching interactive experiences for companies including Universal Studios, Paramount, and Cartoon Network. He and his work have been featured on PBS, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, New Yorker Radio Hour, and Al Jazeera.

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