Road Trips and Brain Science

Last week my son and I did a road trip through the Olympic peninsula of Washington state. It was delightful. He created a road trip music playlist with old and new driving songs. It included songs I know like Sympathy for the Devil and songs by Metric. He also had a number of songs I did’t know.

At one point in the drive, he played a podcast of This American Life about Infowars and Alex Jones. I noticed that I got lost in the world of that story. I was drawn into the suspense. I shared the digust and the surprises as I learned of Alex Jones and his anti-christ bullying antics in high school. Every once in a while I would pull away mentally and notice I was no longer in touch with the scene around us. The cliffs, the mist, the lagoons, and the occasional raptor were lost from my awareness.

Listening to the music playlist was a different experience. It was a like a dose of a day dream drug. It tapped into the same feeling I have when purposefully let my thoughts drift. Somehow music enhanced the experience of watching the road go by. The Pacific coast and the trees all seem more interesting and alive.

All this led me to look into the Default Mode Network (DMN) and how it is influenced by music. The DMN is probably the most important “circuit” in the brain that you’ve never heard of. It are activated when you are engaged in self-reflection and empathy. It is also activated when you are day dreaming.

It turns out that, as I suspected, the DMN is deeply engaged when listening to music. Here is an interest snippet of what I learned from a survey article on the topic:

…it was not the genre of music or whether the music had lyrics, but, more important, whether the person liked it, that changed the patterns of brain functional connectivity. Analysis revealed that when a person listens to music he or she prefers, the brain increases connectivity within the Default Mode Network. This supports what people often report: They find themselves considering unsolicited personal thoughts while listening to music that they like. They are essentially ‘looking in’—ruminating on personally relevant memories and emotions—rather than ‘looking out’—paying attention to external events.“Because it is involved in rumination, where new ideas can be formed, it has been suggested that the DMN might influence aspects related to creativity, abstract thought processing, and cognitive flexibility.

How and Why Does Music Move Us?: Answers from Psychology and Neuroscience

OK, so that seems to point to the DMN and daydreaming as connected and triggered by favorite music. What about narrative story-telling?

Well, that also seems to trigger the DMN, according to some studies. Here is a quote from that article:

The default mode network was originally thought to be a sort of autopilot for the brain when it was at rest and shown only to be active when someone is not engaged in externally directed thinking. Continued studies, including this one, suggest that the default mode network actually is working behind the scenes while the mind is ostensibly at rest to continually find meaning in narrative, serving an autobiographical memory retrieval function that influences our cognition related to the past, the future, ourselves and our relationship to others.

So where does that leave us? In the murkiness of science in the process of discovery.

The DMN is plainly a complex thing and we are beginning to decipher what it means for how we think, and how it influences the experience of being a human.