Maybe you can’t think yourself out, but don’t think yourself in

An article in yesterday’s SMH reported a new study showing that “people with clinical depression may be unable to ‘snap out of it’ because of faulty wiring in the brain”.

Here’s what the study did.

  • Depressed and non-depressed people were shown unpleasant images such as car accidents in order to induce negative feelings.
  • They were then asked to consciously ‘re-frame’ the situations – to imagine a more positive outcome than the one implied in the image, or to imagine it was acted rather than real. The idea was to use cognitive skills to reduce the negative feelings

Here’s what the study found.

  • Everyone showed increased brain activity relating to emotional regulation.
  • In the non-depressed people this was accompanied by low activity in the amygdala, which is the centre of fear and anxiety.
  • But in the depressed people, amygdala activity remained strong, suggesting their attempts at emotional regulation didn’t work so well.

Although both depressed and non-depressed people made the cognitive effort to re-interpret upsetting situations, the researchers concluded that clinically depressed people may have had dysfunctional brain circuits that undermined their efforts.

Now before you dismiss the power of thinking on your happiness, consider how those ‘dysfunctional brain circuits’ might have dysfunced to begin with. Here’s one scenario:  you start to feel down, you think sad thoughts, you feel even worse. It’s a classic downward spiral. Once you’re down there, snapping out of it does seem impossible.

I hear alarm bells (there goes my amygdala) whenever someone suggests your level of happiness reflects how your brain is wired. Brain wiring isn’t set in stone; how you think can change your brain.

For instance, in London taxi drivers the hippocampus – the part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals – is larger than in the rest of us. And the more they drive around, the bigger it grows. Think a certain way long enough, and you create new wiring.

Maybe consciously focussing your thoughts isn’t effective once you’re deep in clinical depression. But it might just stop you getting there in the first place.

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