Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain’s Default Mode with Meditation

Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain’s Default Mode with Meditation


There’s no way a fidgety and skeptical news
anchor would ever have started meditating were it not for the science. The science is
really compelling. It shows that meditation can boost your immune system, lower your blood
pressure, help you deal with problems ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to psoriasis.
And the neuroscience is where it really gets sci-fi. There was a study out of Harvard that
shows that short daily doses of meditation can literally grow the gray matter in key
areas of your brain having to do with self-awareness and compassion and shrink the gray matter
in the area associated with stress. There was also a study out of Yale that looked
at what’s called the default mode network of the brain. It’s a connected series of
brain regions that are active during most of our waking hours when we’re doing that
thing that human beings do all the time which is obsessing about ourselves, thinking about
the past, thinking about the future, doing anything but being focused on what’s happening
right now. Meditators not only turn off the default mode network of their brain while
they’re meditating but even when they’re not meditating. In other words, meditators
are setting a new default mode. And what’s that default mode? They’re focused on what’s
happening right now. In sports this is called being in the zone.
It’s nothing mystical. It’s not magical. You’re not floating off into cosmic ooze.
You are just being where you are – big cliché in self-help circles is being in the now.
You can use that term if you want but because it’s accurate. It’s slightly annoying
but it’s accurate. It’s more just being focused on what you’re doing. And the benefits
of that are enormous. And this is why you’re seeing these unlikely meditators now, why
you’re seeing the U.S. Marines adopting it, the U.S. Army, corporate executives from
the head of Ford to the founders of Twitter. Athletes from Phil Jackson to many, many Olympians.
Scientists, doctors, lawyers, school children. There’s this sort of elite subculture of
high achievers who are adopting this because they know it can help you be more focused
on what you’re doing and it can stop you from being yanked around by the voice in your
head. My powers of prognostication are not great.
I bought a lot of stock in a company that made Palm Pilot back in 2000 and that didn’t
go so well for me. But having said that I’m going to make a prediction. I think we’re
looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution. In the 1940s if you told
people that you went running they would say, who’s chasing you. Right now if you tell
people you meditate – and I have a lot of experience with telling people this, they’re
going to look at you like you’re a little weird most of the time. That’s going to
change. Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no brainers like exercise, brushing your
teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you. These are all things that
if you don’t do you feel guilty about. And that is where I think we’re heading with
meditation because the science is so strongly suggestive that meditation can do really,
really great things for your brain and for your body. The common assumption that we have, and it
may be subconscious, is that our happiness really depends on external factors – how
was our childhood, have we won the lottery recently, did we marry well, did we marry
at all. But, in fact, meditation suggests that happiness is actually a skill, something
you can train just the way you can train your body in the gym. It’s a self-generated thing.
And that’s a really radical notion. It doesn’t mean that external circumstances aren’t
going to impact your happiness. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to be subject to the
vagaries of an impermanent, entropic universe. It just means you are going to be able to
navigate this with a little bit more ease.