Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind

Last time, I reported research into resilience – what it is and what resilient people do in order to bounce back from adversity. On the one hand, it is about being able to accept failures, learn from them and try again. On the other it is about having a particular attitude that will allow perseverance even in the face of daunting challenges. Two specific examples from last time were that resilient individuals dealt with feedback in a certain way, and also that they interpret situations differently. Put together, resilience is a mind-set that shapes the way you see the world – it is full of achievable challenges that may take several attempts to overcome. (But they *will* be overcome…)

A recent paper in Psychological Science adds to this portrait of a resilient individual. The authors of the study (Folan-Ross et al., 2013) were interested in our thoughts – all that ‘fluff’ that is constantly swirling around our conscious minds – the ideas and worries that pop into our heads and won’t go away. Psychologists call this our Working Memory (WM). So when we try and remember a phone number, or the name of someone we’ve just been introduced to, it is our WM that keeps this stuff active (or not!).

The authors were interested in whether there was a difference between the WM and active thoughts of healthy individuals compared to those suffering from depression. They also scanned the brains of the participants in order to see if they could identify the brain basis of any differences between the groups.

It turns out that individuals with depression find it hard to get rid of negative information from their WM. In fact, this might be an important maintenance factor in depression – a sufferer constantly ruminates on negative memories and feelings and so is unable to escape the cycle and recover. So there may be an issue of being unable to ‘disengage’ from negative stuff in order to focus on more positive aspects, such as solutions, goals, and strategies for success.

In the recent study, the experimenters got people to remember lists of words that were either positive or negative in emotion (or neutral – as a control). They were then informed to retain or expel the information and this was tested a short time later. Participants were scanned whilst being tested. One group of participants suffered from depression, the other group were matched healthy controls.

This design enabled the experimenters to assess how well participants could retain or disengage information of different emotional valences (positive vs negative). The main finding was that depressed individuals found it hard to remove negative information from their WM when it became irrelevant to the task. They got stuck on the negative and performed poorly on the task. This ‘behavioural’ finding gives further insight into the mechanisms of depression (and of its converse – resilience). Further, in the brains of the depressed participants, compared to the control participants, there was ‘abnormal’ activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (at the front, in the middle) – an area that has been shown to be important for cognitive control. There were also differences in activity in the insula cortex and parietal lobule – part of a network that contributes to active controlled thinking and behaviour (For our purposes, let’s consider it to be a network for self-control).  Activity was higher in these areas in depressed individuals, which suggests that their brains were trying harder (and failing) to remove the unwanted negative information.

So what can we take from this? Well, it suggests that as depression develops, sufferers progressively focus on negative information. This creates a negative processing bias – they get set in their ways and find it hard to break free to think more positively. Because it has set in over a period of time, when they try to break free and expel the unwanted negative thoughts they find it hard, and correspondingly, their brain’s control network has to work harder.

The broader message here is that we develop ‘habits of the mind’ which tick away in the background as we get on with our day to day lives. In depression, these cognitive habits can be bad for us and actively maintain our illness. This is something that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy deals with effectively. In resilience, the cognitive habits help us to frame the future in a positive way – the challenges are surmountable; the goals are worth the effort; the pain and adversity now is worth the glorious fruits of our labour later.

As with any habit, resilience needs to be worked at. Initially, it may be hard work (an overactive brain network!) to expel the negative and focus on the positive. So we need to put effort and commitment into developing our self-control specifically emphasising positive solutions and benefits. Over time this will get easier and more fluid. Eventually, a resilient habit will become established (a cognitive mind-set encompassing a solution-focused, safe-to-fail, challenge-approaching attitude) and then the future will look much brighter!

– Dr John –


Foland-Ross LC, Hamilton JP, Joormann J, Berman MG, Jonides J, Gotlib IH (2013) The Neural Basis of Difficulties Disengaging From Negative Irrelevant Material in Major Depression. Psychological Science. 2013

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