A new approach shifts thought patterns to improve mood

Imagine this …

You’re shown a number of words one after another: “lettuce, tomato, green, head, vegetable, cabbage, carrot, food, leaf, salad, hamburger.” Then, you’re shown a different set of words: “thread, needle, shot, nurse, drugs, alcohol, wine, cheese, mouse, cat, dog, bone.” Notice any difference between the two chains of words – or even how you feel?

These two sets of words were part of a groundbreaking Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School study that is informing new and innovative ways to address prevalent mood disorders like anxiety and depression. This type of simple word association – and other cognitive activities that rebuild specific neural pathways – are leading to exciting, new tools to address the mental health epidemic in this country and around the world.

I led the Harvard research team that looked at the effects of a “stagnant” word set (like the first list above, where all the words remain within the same, narrow topic without expanding farther) as compared with a “progressive” list (like the second, where the words are associatively related to each other and keep expanding broadly). The results were remarkable: the participants exposed to the more progressive words sets showed significantly improved mood compared with the participants that read the more stagnant sets of words.

Role of facilitating thought progression

These findings built on previous research demonstrating a link between mood and what’s often referred to as “processing scope,” or how mood impacts scope of thinking. We, however, were able to show that this relationship is bidirectional: scope of thinking can also influence mood. In other words, getting people to think more broadly can help reduce depression and anxiety, and using progressive word associations is an effective way to help.

Based on these findings – along with subsequent studies – I’ve worked with a team, originally at Harvard Medical School and now at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, to develop an approach called Facilitating Thought Progression (FTP). FTP is based on the fact that mental health disorders are accompanied by thought disorders such as rumination, a cyclical and repetitive pattern of rigid thinking. FTP disrupts and breaks these patterns, and by gradually reconstructing neural networks that have been lost over years of ruminative thinking, help to improve and maintain mental health.

Opportunities in gaming

Word association is not the only cognitive activity that can help promote more expansive thinking. There’s evidence, for instance, that when you are encouraged to see the bigger picture, quite literally, your mood improves. In one exercise we studied, people are shown a large letter that is made up of different, much small letters. Getting people to focus on the larger letter rather than the smaller ones is a type of what we call “globalization,” which broadens thinking.

Activities like these are increasingly available outside of labs and research studies, and one very exciting channel is mobile apps or games. For better or worse, most of us have our phones with us most of our waking hours, and we use them for nearly everything. As a result, many apps – some quite promising – have been designed to help reduce stress, increase mindfulness, heighten happiness, and much else.

Promising results

As a psychology and neuroscience professor, it’s not every day that I’m able to apply decades of research to help develop highly accessible and practical applications. It’s thrilling and immensely rewarding to see science translated to better mental health. Based on findings from extensive clinical trials we just completed at Massachusetts General Hospital, a mere fifteen-minute-a-day of engaging in FTP-based gaming activities on a phone improve the mental health and symptoms of people with diagnosed depression. We’ll have complete analyses from this rigorous controlled study in the coming months, which we plan to share broadly. My colleagues and I are excited that what we have learned now informs a new generation of mobile games for mental health.

In the meantime, consider this exciting (and progressive) sequence: research studies, FTP, phones, gaming, improved mental health for all!

Moshe Bar is a cognitive neuroscientist and the former director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of Mindwandering: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity and can be reached at Bar Lab and LinkedIn.

Dr. Bar holds a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and has been honored with the prestigious 21st Century Science Initiative Award from the McDonnell Foundation and the Hebb Award from The International Neural Networks Society. Most recently, he led the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Over the past two decades, his lab has actively published numerous scientific articles, and in addition to his scholarly work, he enjoys writing for the public about his research.


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