Reading and the Default Mode Network

We read books to find out who we are.”
— Ursula Le Guin in The Language of the Night, 1979.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

What is the Default Mode Network?

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is that part of the brain most active during REM sleep, while daydreaming and while reading stories.

The DMN is associated with task-unrelated thinking, sometimes called Spontaneous or Stimulus-Independent thought, and has been described as “The brain running in neutral” activated “precisely when we detach ourselves from what’s going on around us” (Noë, 2017).

“Spontaneous thought allows individuals to construct and simulate alternative scenarios, mentally-organize their plans, and prepare for what may lie ahead … and facilitate the organization and structuring of daily events.” (Andrews-Hanna, 2011 )

The Sentinel

But, while the DMN can be thought of as the parts of the brain that are not engaged with processing sensory information or attending to external stimuli (one reason why the study of DMN is difficult), research also supports a “sentinel hypothesis” in which the DMN concurrently monitors the external environment for upcoming stimuli or other significant, unpredictable events; precisely the situation in which we respond to an unexpected event “without thinking” – far from being in a “world of our own” our DMN has been monitoring our external world and is already engaged sufficiently with our memories to react instantaneously.

Eudaimonia, Wellbeing and Pleasure

The findings that the DMN is activated when we are directing our attention inwards may be the reason that the DMN has been linked with the development of Eudaimonia, described by Aristotle as ‘doing and living well’. Vessel (2019) also linked the DMN to the perception of beauty related to aesthetics, including an inner feeling of pleasure associated with music, artworks, landscapes and architecture, perhaps because these activities are often linked with pleasant memories. It is not surprising then to learn that many of the key regions of the pleasure system are part of the Default Mode Network.

Defining ourselves

The DMN is in a constant performance/feedback/revision loop as it continually stores, reviews and applies learned information, consolidating our recent experiences, and enabling us to make sense of the chaotic and disconnected events that we encounter daily.

Our DMN is active whenever we are thinking about ourselves or others, when we are remembering the past or using our past experiences to plan for the future, when we are interacting in social contexts and finding our place in the world, and when we are using our self knowledge to make choices, explore our creativity and test our boundaries.

Our DMN is responsible for:

All the processes that make us who we are as individuals and as members of the society we inhabit…

FORMING Personal Narratives and Autobiographical Memories –

Understanding and accepting our emotional responses, and assimilating facts and events about ourselves into our understanding and knowledge of our personal traits, and our strengths and weaknesses.

DEVELOPING Theory of Mind –

Understanding diversity in viewpoints and opinions, developing Empathy and Moral Reasoning, learning to interpret Social cues and examine Stereotypes, and then learning to modify our behaviour to suit different social situations 

Managing Memories –

Creating memories and then enabling us to recall and apply these memories, access intrinsic understanding, imagine possible futures, comprehend narratives, and respond without thinking in unexpected situations.  

APPLYING Insight & Intuition –

Responsible for the Aha moments, lateral thinking, creativity and confidence in problem solving, Spontaneous Thought and automatic responses that protect us in Sentinel mode, and

DEVELOPING a growth mindset through Vicarious Learning –

Building efficacy, hope, optimism, emotional resilience and curiosity, interpreting simulations & making predictions, finding pathways, overcoming obstacles, through the actions of others

HELPING to Making sense of the world –

Assimilating and interpreting narratives, creating order from chaos, identifying patterns and logical thought processes, analysing and synthesising the day’s events.

Stories and the Default Mode Network

When we read, our DMN is helping us imagine journeys with heroes and villians, define our values and our goals, helping us visualize different perspectives and pathways, supporting our capacity to simulate hypothetical scenes, spaces and mental states; we must access our memories in order to understand the story we’re reading and visualise the scenes within the novel. Our DMN is active when we respond to the word ‘Dog’, associating that one word with the memories and emotions linked to a multitude of interactions with dogs, all invoked by the present instance of a dog within the pages of a novel.

It is the correlation between Reading Fiction and the activation of the Default Mode Network, with its positive links to eudaimonic states and wellbeing, aesthetics, social responsibility, and the self awareness that necessitates the welfare of the self in future endeavours, that presents the most compelling case for Developmental Bibliotherapy in schools.


Andrews-Hanna, J. R. (2011). The Brain’s Default Network and Its Adaptive Role in Internal Mentation. The Neuroscientist18(3), 251–270.

Noë, A. (2016, June 17). Why Do Our Minds Wander? Npr.Org; NPR.

Stark, E. A., Vuust, P., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2018, January 1). Chapter 7 – Music, dance, and other art forms: New insights into the links between hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia (well-being) (J. F. Christensen & A. Gomila (eds.)). ScienceDirect; Elsevier.

Vessel, E. A., Isik, A. I., Belfi, A. M., Stahl, J. L., & Starr, G. G. (2019). The default-mode network represents aesthetic appeal that generalizes across visual domains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences116(38), 19155–19164.

Wikipedia Contributors. (2019, May 15). Default mode network. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

GET PRINTABLE COPY Reading & Default Mode Network


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