There’s only so much mind to go around: you’re either paying attention to what’s happening out there in the world or you’re—as the saying goes—in your head. According to a new study, rumination, a mental tic that’s both a driver and symptom of depression, has a way of monopolizing your mental resources, making it harder to be aware of what’s going on around you.
“Rumination is pernicious—we often don’t realize we are doing it, and especially for individuals with depression or other forms of psychopathology, it becomes a habit,” lead author Ema Tanovic, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Yale, explained to Thrive Global over email.
What makes rumination different from other forms of thought is how repetitive and circuitous it can be, like a tape recording of misgivings playing over and over again in your head. “It is the mental equivalent of walking in circles,” she added. “People who ruminate think there are benefits to doing so, but engaging in rumination is associated with feeling more negative emotion.”
For the paper to be published in next month’s Emotion, Tanovic and her team recruited 45 college students, who first took tests measuring their anxiety and depression symptoms as well as their tendency to ruminate and worry. The research team also rigged them up with EEG brain activity detectors and asked them to play a commonly used rapid response game where they had to press a key on a keyboard corresponding with the direction of arrows presented on a screen. Every prompt was presented for just 200 milliseconds; between each block of eleven tries participants got a feedback response (“You’re doing a great job!” vs “Please try to be more accurate”) telling them how well they were doing.
And that’s when things got really science-y: in monitoring participants brain activity, the researchers found that people who scored highly on rumination had fewer neural firings associated with self awareness about how well they were performing on the task. “Essentially, regardless of whether they are responding correctly or making mistakes, high ruminators seem to be less focused on their performance,” Tanovic explains. It could be that they were thinking about their earlier efforts, or some entirely unrelated event.
Things got even more revealing after breaking rumination down into its two main varieties, what psychologists call “brooding” and “reflective pondering.” The former is marked by abstract negative thoughts (“What am I doing to deserve this?”) and obstacles to problems (Why can’t I handle things better?”), while the latter is self-referential (“I need to go to someplace by myself and think about my feelings) and solution-seeking (“I analyze recent events to figure out why I’m depressed.”). In this study, the brooding was way more distracting, suggesting that not only does brooding take an emotional toll, but it’s “cognitively taxing,” in the words of the researchers.
And that’s where rumination—itself implicated in both depression and anxiety—connects to another hot topic in the brain sciences: cognitive control. That’s the way the brain selects which mental process should have the starring role in a given experience. As Jonathan Cohen, who runs a neuroscience lab dedicated to cognitive control at Princeton, explains, cognitive control isn’t about selecting one task or demand and totally negating all the others, but rather choosing to give one the spotlight, in the same way a teacher picks which kid to call on among those with their hands in the air.
Increasing amounts of research suggest that people struggling with depression and related conditions have impaired cognitive control, leading to that vertiginous feeling of your mind being a runaway train. The upside is that this also suggests possible interventions. “The ability to direct our attention, monitor what we are doing, and update our thoughts with what is most relevant are all necessary for breaking out of rumination—for redirecting ourselves from the circle we were walking in back onto the path,” Tanovic says. “Such abilities are what makes up cognitive control.”
Quite promisingly, treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness training and the directly titled “cognitive control training” all show the power of helping people learn to better guide their attention. “Exciting recent work is beginning to provide evidence for the idea that training cognitive control, even with simple computer tasks, can decrease rumination in daily life, thereby reducing risk for depression,” Tanovic adds. “The underlying idea is that the better one is able to monitor and redirect their thoughts, the easier it will be notice that they are ruminating and to stop.” The key theme: Change the way you approach your thoughts, and you’ll change your mental health.