People who are thinking depressing thoughts find their working memory capacity is reduced, a new study confirms.
This is because the attention of people thinking depressing thoughts is automatically attracted to other depressing things.
Working memory is vital to our ability to hold information in short-term memory and manipulate it.
The study’s authors explain:
“For example, remembering a grocery list requires maintaining list items while also attending to competing demands such as those inherent in navigating one’s way through the grocery store.
Indeed, complex span performance is broadly associated with higher-order cognitive performance both in and out of the laboratory.” (Hubbard et al., 2015)
The new study helps explain why depression is frequently linked to problems concentrating and with day-to-day memory.
The problem is that when the mind is taken up with depressing thoughts, it finds it difficult to concentrate on ordinary, everyday goals.
For the study, people were asked to remember various pieces of information while they were being periodically disrupted.
In fact, just like people have to do every day.
Sometimes, though, the interruptions were neutral and other times depressing.
People who were thinking depressing thoughts found it more difficult to ignore the depressing information and they got distracted.
The authors explain:
“Results from these studies imply that mood-congruent information [in other words the depressing interruptions] evokes controlled attention deficits in individuals with depressed mood.
If mood-congruent information is not able to be efficiently removed from the focus of attention, we would expect this to result in a relative decrease in working-memory capacity for individuals with depressed mood compared to those without depressed mood.”
The study’s authors concluded:
“Such deficits take a personal toll on these individuals with depressed mood and have societal consequences via loss of productivity and an increased rate of disability.
It is likely that persistent thinking about affectively negative, mood congruent information … can impair real-world functioning for those with depressed mood.”
The research is published in the journal Cognition and Emotion (Hubbard et al., 2015).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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