Our Wandering Minds Teach Us a Lot About Mental Health

Our Wandering Minds Teach Us a Lot About Mental Health

via Very Well Mind by Lo Styx

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study analyzing real-time patterns of thought focused on capturing ruminative thinking, a common symptom of depression and anxiety.
  • The findings revealed that highly ruminative individuals’ thoughts were more negative, past-oriented and self-focused.
  • Spending free moments lost in thought rather than distracting ourselves with technology or social media can benefit the mind.

Where do your thoughts wander off to when you daydream? Often we think of future plans or past experiences, but for some, those thoughts frequently skew toward the negative.

Relatively little is understood about the inner workings of human consciousness and how thoughts unfold.1 But a better understanding of these dynamics, especially negative thought cycling, may provide insight into mental health, as well.

To further explore this relationship, a group of researchers analyzed participants’ idle thoughts recorded over a 10-minute period. Their findings reveal that certain patterns in thinking could be linked to symptoms of depression.

Investigating the Inner World

Researchers conducted two studies using the think aloud paradigm, which required participants to sit alone in a testing room for ten minutes without access to technology. The main instruction from researchers was to continuously voice aloud whatever came to mind, such as internal thoughts or images, perceptions of external stimuli or bodily sensations. Participants were then asked to compare these thoughts to those they experience during a typical day.

After seeing what rumination looks like in action, we can now start to explore how therapies work to improve one’s mental health, possibly by altering what and how we think when we have idle time on our hands.— JESSICA ANDREWS-HANNA, PHD

“The nature of our inner mental life is one of the most elusive mysteries in psychology, with clear relevance to personality and mental health,” says the study’s co-author Jessica Andrews-Hanna, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. “We designed our study to help illuminate human thought by using a ‘think aloud’ procedure to capture thoughts as they emerge in real-time.”

This approach, as opposed to self-report questionnaires, could provide better insight into how thoughts unfold over an extended period, Andrews-Hanna says.

In the first study, 27 participants voiced their thoughts aloud, which were recorded and then analyzed. The second study consisted of the same exercise completed by 51 participants, who also completed a rumination questionnaire to determine how prone participants were to brooding.

The findings, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that participants with higher scores on the rumination scale were associated with more negative, past-oriented and self-focused thinking. These participants also spent more time focused on negative thoughts than positive ones.

The differences in these patterns of healthy and unhealthy thinking could serve as a real-time cognitive signature, or fingerprint, of rumination. This is meaningful for the future of mental health interventions, as rumination, or the process of rehashing unpleasant thoughts that cause distress, is a common symptom of depression and anxiety…

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