People With Depression Get Stuck on Bad Thoughts,
Unable to Turn Their Attention Away, Study Suggests

ScienceDaily (June 3, 2011) — We all have
our ups and downs — a fight with a friend, a divorce, the loss of a parent. But
most of us get over it. Only some go on to develop major depression. Now, a new
study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological
, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests
part of the reason may be that people with depression get stuck on bad thoughts
because they’re unable to turn their attention away.

People who don’t recover from negative events seem to keep going over their
troubles. “They basically get stuck in a mindset where they relive what happened
to them over and over again,” says Jutta Joormann, of the University of Miami.
She co wrote the new study with Sara Levens and Ian H. Gotlib of Stanford
University. “Even though they think, oh, it’s not helpful, I should stop
thinking about this, I should get on with my life — they can’t stop doing it,”
she says. She and her colleagues thought people with depression might have a
problem with working memory. Working memory isn’t just about remembering a
shopping list or doing multiplication in your head; it’s about what thoughts you
keep active in your mind. So, Joormann thought, maybe people who get stuck on
negative thoughts have problems turning their mind to a new topic.

Joormann and her colleagues recruited 26 people with depression and 27 people
who had never had depression. Each person sat in front of a computer and was
shown three words, one at a time for a second each. Then, they were told to
remember the words either in the order they were presented or in backward order.
The computer then presented one of the three words and they were supposed to
respond as quickly as they could whether that word was first, second, or third
in the list. The faster they were able to give a correct answer, the better they
were at thinking flexibly.

People with depression had trouble re-ordering the words in their head; if
they were asked to remember the words in reverse order, they took longer to give
the correct answer. They had a particularly hard time if the three words had
negative meanings, like “death” or “sadness.”

“The order of the words sort of gets stuck in their working memory,
especially when the words are negative,” Joormann says. She also found that
people who had more trouble with this are also more likely to ruminate on their
troubles. She hopes that these findings point towards a way to help people with
depression, by training them to turn their minds away from negative

Association for Psychological Science (2011, June 3). People with depression get
stuck on bad thoughts, unable to turn their attention away, study suggests.
ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 4, 2011, from­ /releases/2011/06/110602162828.htm