Accessing the default mode network

Dear Artist, When you paint you are using two distinct areas of your brain. One is the up front, active brain known to neurologists as “task positive.” This is where you try to paint well, get the anatomy right, master colour, achieve a decent design as well as other practicalities of the moment. The second area is farther back in the cortex and is more the resting brain — what is known as “task negative.” Neurologists also call this the “default mode network.” This is where attention wanders when the task positive brain is not being fully used. Here are daydreams, memories, fantasies, fictitious conversations and even thoughts about things that have nothing to do with the job at hand. To their surprise, neurologists found that this wandering mind uses almost as much energy as the one that gives the appearance of getting things done. Average people are in their task-negative brains more than a third of their waking hours. Apparently, artistic and inventive folk are even more into it. As such, the default mode network is thought to be the buzzing beehive of creativity. I’m not a neurologist, but I’ve knocked about in a few artists’ brains. Beginners tend to favor the task positive — fairly obviously because they are figuring out how to do things. Mature artists, on the other hand, can often slip into task negative for entire works. Having mastered the nuts and bolts, they now trust the felicitous takeover of default mode. Their paintings paint themselves. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu figured it out 2400 years ago. He called it “Doing without trying to do.” Here’s the rub: Some artists stay permanently stuck in task positive. “Without wandering minds,” says psychologist Jonathan Schooler, “they stay shackled to what they’re doing at the time.” On the other hand, there are artists who are all wandering mind and show little evidence of practical technique or self-managed application. Left on its own, neither mode works properly. Working together, they are like a couple of characters in an old silent movie — they can’t help but make interesting things happen. If there is a secret, it may lie in achieving a balance and teaching yourself to switch back and forth. Constant stopping just to think won’t fix a work that is already over-thought. Over-thinking leads to one of our most vexing goof-ups — overworking. Conversely, a persistent state of wandering mind can turn fine work into a fine mess. You need ’em both. Best regards, Robert PS: “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” (Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel) Esoterica: Now here’s the interesting part: Apparently, boredom is a significant springboard to creativity. Neuroscientists have also found boredom to be a source of feelings of well being and a strong sense of self. In boredom, the brain continues to fire away in those regions that conjure hypothetical events and new possibilities. The wandering mind, the dream world, can be a better world than the real nuts-and-bolts world and for the artist, with the addition of task-positive skills, it can transform into the joyful business of making it happen.   Rock and roll by Ruth Rodgers, Lakeside, ON, Canada

“Blueberry Fields in Winter”
pastel painting
by Ruth Rodgers

As an artist who also teaches psychology, I have given a fair bit of thought to this idea of “two brains,” mostly with respect to the left brain/right brain model espoused by Betty Edwards in her famous book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Whether we are talking two hemispheres, conscious / unconscious, or “positive and negative,” the idea is the same — the need for balance between the analytical, task-focused, symbolic-language based part of us, and the more abstract, graphic, explorative aspect. I have developed a rhythm in my painting that alternates between stepping back and engaging my analytic brain (rocking) to make decisions about the work, and then stepping forward and engaging my free-flowing, unconscious aspect (rolling) while I actually make marks on the painting. I try to alternate between these two modes fairly regularly, paying attention to any decrease in flow while painting (time to rock!), and the urgency to “get at it” (time to roll!) when I’m in the step-back mode. It’s fun! There are 2 comments for Rock and roll by Ruth Rodgers
From: Anonymous — Mar 09, 2010

Lovely analogy of listening to your inner voice.

From: dottie dracos — Mar 09, 2010

Okay, first of all, I just spent a half hour re-learning the difference between metaphor and analogy, just to be able to comment on your fun, fun description of your work style. Loved the description, still not too sure whether to call it a metaphor or an analogy (please, if it’s obvious to others that I should instantly know which is correct to use here, be kind). Time to go rock ‘n roll now.

  Painter needs to ‘leave the room’ by Shelley Mitchell, Halifax, NS, Canada  

original painting
by Shelley Mitchell

When I get past the planning stage of a painting and have set down the basic design and values I always put on loud music, a TV or listen to books on CD while I actually lay down paint. This seems to force me to keep part of my attention off the work and that allows for a certain amount of automatic or unconscious creativity to take over. I never really knew why this worked for me but as you explained, it allows that “task negative” part of the brain to take over more easily since the “task positive” part is busy listening to the music, books or movies playing. I remember reading a quote by Manet to the effect “If I’m lucky, when I paint, first my patrons leave the room, then my dealers, and if I’m really lucky I leave too.”   Using the conscious part of mind is simple by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“West Bank”
original painting
by Jeffrey Hessing

The labels, “task positive/negative” disturb me. It gives a false impression of the whole process and has definite value judgments attached.  The consciousness is 12 % of the brain, the other 88% is very busy and indispensible. For creative people the conscious part; mastering techniques, having a sense of self-criticism, not to mention a minimum of marketing and relational skills, is relatively easy. Using the conscious mind is simple. That’s what it is there for. Accessing the deeper levels is the real adventure and where great art begins to take form. It is like the journey to the center of the earth.   The wisdom of ‘technique first’ by Linda Hudgins, Tryon, NC, USA  

“Inside the Landscape”
acrylic painting
by Linda Hudgins

I find that the best days are those when I work in default. Recently I have been revisiting the message from my Pennsylvania Academy trained professor in undergraduate school. He insisted to me that I needed to learn to see and to understand technique as I was too young and inexperienced to know what I wanted to do with art. As I experience life and bring myself to the painting I find that he was right. I rely on techniques and skills learned by that “task positive” brain as I go “task negative” where I find the joy. There is 1 comment for The wisdom of ‘technique first’ by Linda Hudgins
From: Michael — Mar 09, 2010

Wish I could paint like you….

  The illusive smile on the brush by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA   I would like to talk about the buzzing beehive of creativity, as you should, coming from a clean source of one’s personal intimate approach to art. Instincts is all we have to show for when it comes to answering the poke that finds its way to irritate the surface of our skin, it is like the shrine of our soul filled with prayers and well wishing of the entire universe stretching through the entire history of man-kind that does not materialize to become more than another detail that is, somewhat, useless in the quest for creativity. The significance of science and its revelations, studies and their value is empty of value when it comes to a thousand questions racing towards your brain, all expecting to be answered. I would like your scientists to answer this question: Is the grin on the face of my brush a smile or a sign of exhaustion.   The accession of outside information by Helen Musser, Terrell, TX, USA  

“Magnolias In Bowl”
oil painting
by Helen Musser

During my days at Southern Methodist University, our professor came into the studio talking about Christopher Columbus and how he discovered our country. We were all busy painting a nude and I was puzzled why he was talking about Chris. We finished painting that day and I was going to take my work home but, he would not let me. The next day he came in and said to the class, “Helen is accessing information as she paints.” I did not know what he was talking about until I took the painting home that day and looked at it closely. There it was in her hair a tiny little seashore and three tiny little ships anchored there. So how did that happen? I hope you can help explain it to me. I never talked to my professor about it. Too shy about my art.   The value of boredom by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada  

original painting
by Odette Nicholson

From this description it appears I was born mature LOL! I do agree that boredom is a major motivation to get me Task Positive in the studio. I do feel that thinking, or letting the brain think, is a great thing. Some would argue that too much Positive Tasking is life-negative in general – I’ve noted that those who thrive only in concrete reality do tend to hold the opinion that anyone appearing to be lawling-around not doing is flakey or lazy (bad bad words!). What I would describe the background prep work is like being pregnant — I don’t task every day in my studio because I know when I need to be doing and when I need to be not doing. Chop Wood Carry Water — a great meditation on Life. I live in a pretty near constant state of gestation — multi-tasking — I’m really really good at washing dishes, laundry, day to day stuff including a day job and carrying on full conversations while in Negative Task mode!   The larger and smaller self by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA  

“mysteries marvelous matrix”
acrylic painting
by Charles Peck

Well this is just another “atta-boy” pat on the old back Robert. This region mentioned in your letter called “default mode network” seems a lot like what I’ve referred to now for quite awhile as the “larger self” riding in the back of the brain and that which is responsible for those bursts of creative insight that come along every now and then. Historically referred to as a visit by the “Muses.” I usually think of what is referred in your letter as the “task positive” arena as the “frontal brain” or the “little logic man” that likes to think he is the driver but is in reality just the cat posted on guard duty… as crucial function but not “headquarters.”     Surprises in tracking mental activity by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA  

“Uncle Albert”
original painting
by Bobbo Goldberg

I’m absolutely fascinated by how the Jello Upstairs shapes experience, purpose and consciousness. A wonderful source of information of this type is to be found on RadioLab, a production of WNYC. NPR broadcasts it, and their astonishing collection of podcasts is available both online at ( and at the iTunes Music Store. “This Is Your Brain On Love” is a great place to start. In another episode (sorry, the title eludes me) they talk about an experiment in volition, using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans of the brain. These scanners can detect areas of brain activity as they occur, a remarkable achievement. In this experiment, the subjects were told to wiggle their finger anytime they wanted to. That was it. The scan revealed that, a few milliseconds before the finger moved, there was a brief spike of activity in the motor area. No surprise there. What WAS surprising was that, about a half second before that, there was another burst of activity, unbeknownst to the wiggler and not readily explained by the scientists. It seems that, when we make a choice, something unconscious chooses to permit us to choose, first. Now get past that and into how dopamine draws us to the pleasures of making art, and then factor in the Default-Mode network. There is 1 comment for Surprises in tracking mental activity by Bobbo Goldberg
From: Darla — Mar 09, 2010

Love your painting!

  Discovering EFT by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“Evening Poetry”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

I got a call from my brother the other day. Bill is an interesting fellow. He suffers from ‘schizo affective disorder.’ That means he is schizophrenic with an added ‘bonus’ of bipolar mood swings. He is disabled and has a lot of time on his hands so he surfs the Internet seeking hope and inspiration. I get regular reports on his recent discoveries, that he usually is excited about for a day or two. He was telling me about a therapy called EFT which stands for ’emotional freedom techniques.’ I looked it up and have become interested in it myself. I believe it would interest you as well. EFT borrows from ancient Chinese medicine that views the body as an electrical entity. Energy fields in the body are plotted out as ‘meridians’ running through us. Pressure points along these meridians are vital for healing. Acupuncture involves these sticking needles into these pressure points. The theory behind EFT is that we are all slowed down by past emotional and physical traumas… feelings that are evoked over and over based on external events. These traumas are stored in our bodies, blocking our energy flow and creating many of the illnesses that are manifested on our bodies. Where psychiatry focuses on these memories, EFT focuses on restoring the energy flow in our body. EFT therapy involves tapping on the pressure points on your body, while reciting affirmations about whatever it is you are wanting to change. I am a skeptical person and this sounds odd as can be, yet there is really no denying that this method creates some amazing results for a host of human ills. These healings defy modern medicine and render much of its ideas obsolete. People who have suffered crippling pain for years are ‘cured’ in just minutes in many instances. Soldiers stuck in a terrifying post traumatic stress regain their sanity etc, etc… all by the simple act of tapping on their bodies on these pressure points. Very strange. Check out the website. I think you will find it oddly fascinating and could imagine how artists could use this form of therapy to improve their lives and performance in their art. There is 1 comment for Discovering EFT by Paul deMarrais
From: Kay Christopher — Mar 11, 2010

Paul is correct about EFT being an amazing technique. Am a certified EFT Practitioner and have been practicing and teaching for several years. Have seen many very exciting improvements come about through its use (including the resolution of long term PTSD in war veterans — there is research which backs this up). You can download an excellent free 78 page manual written by EFT Founder Gary Craig from the website Paul referred to above. Check it out. Very worthwhile and very easy to learn. Can be used for being artistically/creatively blocked as well as for a myriad of emotional and physical issues. And, using EFT with skill is an art form. That is one reason I like it so much.

  Laurel and Hardy misquoted by George R Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada  

Laurel and Hardy

I’m afraid your film quote is just a little off. The actual line, repeated in several early films, would come after some scheme of Oliver’s had gone awry. He would pull himself up to full, outraged height, glare at Stanley, and declare, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” I felt I had to correct this undoubtedly misremembered statement because as Stanley famously said in “Sons of the Desert,” ‘Honesty is the best politics.’ (RG note) Thanks, George. And thanks also to the dozen or so others who set me straight on this one. I got myself into a fine mess. We’ve fixed it on the website and for any future publications. I met Stan Laurel several times when I was living in Los Angeles (1960). He frequented a bar on Van Nuys Blvd that had some of my work. One time he told me that the pair (Ollie had already passed away) didn’t own any of the rights to their movies. Their thinking was that the movies were so quickly and effortlessly made that they were just temporary amusements, and not worth hanging on to.   [fbcomments url=””]    woa  

Warm Summers Eve

oil painting by Grace Schlesier, La Mesa, CA, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Debra Gow of Langley, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Robert, that is the best assessment of being an artist I’ve ever heard. I am so grateful that I’ve been in the mode of creating pieces that just fall off the brush so to speak.” And also Kathy Hirsh of Beijing, China, who wrote, “There’s a business paradigm that I often think about when painting and teaching. I’m trying to get to the fourth level myself: Unconsciously incompetent Consciously incompetent Consciously competent Unconsciously competent.” And also Knut Hansen of Denmark, who wrote, “Today’s overreliance on task negative is the reason there is so much poor art around.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Accessing the default mode network

From: Chris Everest — Mar 05, 2010

When I am doing my day-time job, earning the bread and butter my head stays firmly in the default mode network. It wanders across every conceivable thought process it possibly can. I have considered how creative I feel in this state (almost bipolar) and how much lower I feel in the “task positive” (of my job) side. I have recently been put in an office, essentially by myself, and these flights of fancy are inspiring me but leave me craving company. Dear Agony Aunt Robert ; Can I survive with just a sketchbook, an email browser and a psychiatrist. Yours truly. Chris

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Mar 05, 2010

I bet a grade school teacher could discuss how boredom, in her children, can foster ‘creativity’. lol.

From: Tom Semmes — Mar 05, 2010
From: Rene — Mar 05, 2010

Another interesting theory about brain activity. Now the question is where does this fit into the Left brain/Right brain theory?

From: Deb Lacativa — Mar 05, 2010

Like many artists I have a day job, in my case, a night job at a call center. Thank goodness there are down times between calls and no one seems to mind that I use one of my cube walls as a design wall for my textile work. I sit on the corner of “Crazy & Main” so anyone walking by can observe my work in progress. Switching back and forth between the intensely focused brain mode required for the particular type of calls I receive (NOT sales related, thank all the Gods) and whatever brain centers are at work (or not) during the creative process, is wearing a path between those areas that was not there before I started working this way. I find myself making design decisions without the internal peanut gallery either reciting the “rules” or making judgment calls before I even stick a pin in anything. Notions just fly out – good, bad and all points in between – uncensored. I can revise over and over until something starts to hum. Most of my current work has been in design mode for a week or more of eight hour shifts before I’ll take a single stitch. It would be too easy to allow the boredom of these minutes and seconds of downtime to stupefy with solitaire or trash reading but I’m finding these little snatches of free time to be incredibly productive and rewarding. I’m getting more done now than when I had whole days of uninterrupted time in the studio. I’m warping that default mode but its working out well for me.

From: Gail Griffiths — Mar 05, 2010

When I paint, hours go buy that feel like 45 minutes. I look at what I’ve painted and it’s as if the painting has emerged from the canvas. This I always felt was a gift of spiritual nature. Most likely it is my “task negative” brain taking over. It is just like when one is driving and has to question if they have already passed markers on an all too familiar road. All this time it felt spiritual, my painting experience. So, the question is then, “Is my art a gift or a well practiced task at which I can now do without thinking?” Gail Griffiths

From: Lynda Lehmann — Mar 06, 2010

I’ve heard it said that successful art comes from finding the right balance between passion and restraint. The artist must find a stance in between passion (in which the intuitive, visceral, and less-directed parts of consciousness set up the drama of creative force) and critical thinking (which dictates when to apply consideration and restraint to the joyous free-flow of that process). A hearth-fire is warming, aesthetic, meditative, and hypnotic, but when it gets out of control, it will consume everything in its path. And so it is, with the creative fire.

From: JoRene Newton — Mar 06, 2010

Years ago Betty Edwards enlightened teachers in ways to access that part of their students brain and it has been a great tool ever since. I have experienced that “a painting painting itself” in my works and I simply call it “Intuitive painting.”

From: Mary Sonya Conti — Mar 06, 2010

Of both the default mode network and the task positive realm, Vikki North has been doing a series of works on the Artist Challenge site. It struck me that here is the example of what you are addressing in your letter. She always “tells the story behind her artwork as an added highlight to her work. It really made me marvel today at how “all the pieces” are intertwined.

From: Eloise Weymouth — Mar 06, 2010
From: Fleta Monaghan — Mar 06, 2010

Oh, What a relief! I have always been dismayed when a young person tells me, “Im Bored!”. How can this be, I think, when there are so many things to do, and so much to ponder? Now, if what you say is true, they are merely accessing lots of creative sparks in the brain. I guess we all need a good dose of boredom now and again. Translate this to slow down, be a little lazy, spend some time daydreaming!

From: R Wayne — Mar 06, 2010

Last month I was introduced me to an Apple itouch. I really had no need to download tunes or movies but he happened to have a sketching “app” on his itouch. While I watched the Olympics I kept my itouch handy and during the commercials I whipped it out and sketched. No pencils or brushes needed, just your finger. And since I was not doing a “real” painting I could relax and just doodle…just ideas popping into my head.

From: Scott Menaul — Mar 06, 2010

Art comes from the spirit. The brain is just motor controls, not the source of color decisions or design. We use the body (including the brain) to manifest our thoughts in the physical universe. The thoughts and decisions all originate from us, spiritual beings. Clearwater, FL

From: Keith Hiscock — Mar 07, 2010

Feels like home to me

From: Z Barszczewski — Mar 08, 2010

An enforced condition of boredom, through avoidance of some unpleasant situation, or just from a natural and occasional feeling of nothingness in one’s life, is indeed a valuable source of creativity and inspiration. It’s as if the human mind “fills in” with imagination, at the same time inviting busyness and accomplishment as a distraction. The result is art.

From: K Howard Price — Mar 08, 2010

Gentlemen and Ladies, we need our depressions…

From: G A Dick — Mar 08, 2010

When in “task negative” at the easel, things that have nothing whatsoever to do with the task at hand includes a lot of practicalities of another nature. It seems to me that positive and optimistic expectancies and anticipations like golf or travel, particularly activities that cost money, are valuable.

From: Glen Johnston — Mar 08, 2010

If the general population is now in dream mode a third of the time, they may as well be painting. Maybe that’s why it seems the general population has taken up painting.

From: Esther J. Williams — Mar 11, 2010

I liked this article, I have been reading it over several times, balancing it with my own beliefs on the mind of the artist. Basically, it clarifies why I have overworked a number of paintings and why some paintings seemed to have painted themselves without me feeling conscious of it. With all the complicated fundamentals we artists have shoved down us in college, it`s no wonder we get frontal headaches. We are in the task positive part and spending way too little time kicking back to the deeper part of the mind. This is not to say that I never spent half my childhood daydreaming when the teacher was boring and doodled on the desktop. That became lost somewhere in growing up and having a family. With recent years of practice and being imaginative, I am now at a stage where I can say, YES! I have reached the depths, the far corners, that elusive, ethereal part of the mind while I paint and ALSO swing up to the frontal side to become practical. I think it comes with practice and familiarity of knowing the ‘how to’ and letting your inner self guide you subliminally, it is becoming unstructured instead of calculating all the time. So, Robert, you are right, we need to balance the aspects of the creative mind. I am going to finish a painting right now and let myself swing gently from the front to the back of my mind.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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