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See Inside March 2010

The Brain's Dark Energy

Brain regions active when our minds wander may hold a key to understanding neurological disorders and even consciousness itself



Jean-Francois Podevin

Imagine you are almost dozing in a lounge chair outside, with a magazine on your lap. Suddenly, a fly lands on your arm. You grab the magazine and swat at the insect. What was going on in your brain after the fly landed? And what was going on just before? Many neuroscientists have long assumed that much of the neural activity inside your head when at rest matches your subdued, somnolent mood. In this view, the activity in the resting brain represents nothing more than random noise, akin to the snowy pattern on the television screen when a station is not broadcasting. Then, when the fly alights on your forearm, the brain focuses on the conscious task of squashing the bug. But recent analysis produced by neuroimaging technologies has revealed something quite remarkable: a great deal of meaningful activity is occurring in the brain when a person is sitting back and doing nothing at all.

It turns out that when your mind is at rest—when you are daydreaming quietly in a chair, say, asleep in a bed or anesthetized for surgery—dispersed brain areas are chattering away to one another. And the energy consumed by this ever active messaging, known as the brain’s default mode, is about 20 times that used by the  brain when it responds consciously to a pesky fly or another outside stimulus. Indeed, most things we do consciously, be it sitting down to eat dinner or making a speech, mark a departure from the baseline activity of the brain default mode.

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