You may have heard the term default mode network before, especially in neurodivergent spaces - or maybe you haven’t! It can sound clinical. So why do I want to talk about it? It’s a bit like the term neurotype (which was talked about here). While a neurotype refers to the different patterns of brain wiring overall that can be seen in people, default mode network refers to these patterns specifically when the brain is at rest. That means even when we’re doing nothing, our brains can still be doing “nothing” differently!
So what is the default mode network like for those of us with ADHD? And why is it important?
ADHD is often described as a neurodevelopmental “disorder”, insinuating something has gone wrong somewhere in our development since we’re not matching the patterns of what society has deemed the norm. Because of this, you might have heard things like “you’re lazy” or “you just don’t want to pay attention”. Understanding that your default mode network differs in needs from the way you’re being treated is important to understanding that you’re not “disordered”. Our brains were wired differently from the start, and were meant to be; society has just largely refused to make space for multiple sets of needs, demanding everyone fit and function in the same constricted mold. Knowing how we’re different can show us there’s nothing wrong with us, our needs are just going unmet - and then we can meet those needs ourselves.
ADHD brains have default mode networks that experience more hyperactivation and hypoactivation (in other words, there’s too much going on up there for us, or too little) than what’s been deemed typical. This explains both why our minds can wander so easily and why we can struggle to maintain attention or motivation and zone out. These patterns even affect how we experience memory and decision making. Default mode networks also refer to how we process sensory information - and these processes look different in those with ADHD, too. While this comes with challenges, most of them say more about how we’re expected to do things than they do about ourselves, despite what we’re often told to think.
For instance, if your mind is wandering and you’re struggling to focus - you might be experiencing hyper- or hypo- activation, something those with your default mode network are going to run into. This might mean your brain is looking for more stimulation, and might be craving something more interesting than what you’re doing. Your brain wants to be busy, which is the opposite of lazy. Instead of forcing yourself to sit in front of a task trying to browbeat yourself into “buckling down and just doing” the thing like you’ve probably been told to do, look for the unmet need. You might need more going on to give that “hyperactive” brain enough to do passively so that you can focus. Add more processing input to your environment to focus on your task: play great music, light a candle, keep interesting and colourful art where you can see it. Add a weighted blanket to your lap, chew gum, or take a quick dance party break. Do as many of them as you can! Alternatively, maybe you’ve got too much coming at you to focus and your brain is hypoactivated, making everything feel like too much. Have you eaten recently? Are you thirsty? Do you need to get up and walk around because it’s been a while sitting? If your physical needs are met, look at your environment: do you need less noise? Is the room too bright? Is there something constantly pulling your focus that you can remove?
Sometimes, too, it might just be time to do something else. Part of meeting our own needs means knowing we deserve flexibility and grace while we function in a world that wasn’t built with us in mind.