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Research Roundup 20

5 fascinating research pieces that illuminate the human condition

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

– Isaac Asimov

Wisdom isn’t attained through amassing ever more facts and figures. That way lies indigestion of the mind.

Like a spaceship constantly bombarded with meteorites, during the course of our human lives we find ourselves pelted continually by bits of information.

Some of it is valuable, some of it may be essential, and much of it is useless… unless we see where it fits in the greater scheme of things.

In this occasional series I look at five bits of psychological research to see if I can make sense of it in such a way that I, and hopefully you, can see a part of the overall human condition illuminated a little more clearly. Maybe we can hear what’s really there beyond all the ‘noise’.

Research findings on their own, without being contextualized into the greater pattern of what it means to be human, can at best be curiously interesting, and at worst confuse the heck out of us.

So what have I got for you this time?

This month’s gems

This month we’re going to take a look at:

  • The effect of negative thoughts on mental health
  • The tendency of depressed patients to continue to focus on the negative
  • How hypnosis changes the way our brain processes information
  • How we can prevent depression by meeting our physical and emotional needs
  • The age at which we are happiest.

Research piece one: Suppressing negative thoughts may be good for mental health!

A recent study challenges the prevailing notion that trying to suppress negative thoughts is detrimental to our mental wellbeing.1

Researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit trained 120 volunteers worldwide to suppress thoughts about negative events that worried them, and found that not only did these thoughts become less vivid, but the participants’ mental health also improved.

My take?

I’m reminded of the character Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, who says:

“Tomorrow I’ll think of some way… after all, tomorrow is another day.”

In other words, “I won’t think about this [bad thing] now but will defer focusing on it.” Not only that, but she’s confident that when she does decide to focus on the problem, her future self will find a way to solve it! On the face of it, it does seem like a constructive, positive approach.

But the idea of suppressing negative thoughts as a constructive strategy for good mental health does fly in the face of at least a century of therapeutic thought, not to mention many current psychotherapeutic assumptions as to the dangers of suppressing negative thoughts and feelings.

And yet I’d like to make a distinction here, because I think the truth is more nuanced.

Suppressing negative thoughts may be different to suppressing negative feelings.

For example, if I find myself thinking, “no one will like me” at my upcoming presentation, I can shunt that thought away, and instead focus on giving a good presentation. Hey presto, I have successfully dismissed a negative thought!

If, on the other hand, I’m trembling and feeling nauseous, with my pulse racing faster than the last few days of a wonderful vacation, then I might want to name that powerful feeling in order to be able to effectively deal with it.

Don’t mention the unmentionable!

Indeed, other research on eating psychopathology found that suppressing thoughts wasn’t an effective strategy, and in fact tended to produce a stronger rebound effect.2,3 This reminds me of John Cleese’s character Basil Fawlty in the 1970s sitcom desperately telling himself and others, “Don’t mention the war!” to some German guests. The more he avoids the topic of World War II, the more it creeps into his conversation!

If we try not to think of something that is scaring us, our unconscious mind tends to keep trying to present it to us more urgently, in an ever-amplified way.

Ultimately we may be better served not by carrying the mental burden of trying not to think of something, but by learning to think about it in a different way.

And yet there is a lot to be said for being able to compartmentalize worries and distract our focus from what it doesn’t help us to focus on right now. Maybe Scarlett O’Hara had it right in some ways.

Talking of how we focus our attention… The next piece of research can tell us something very important about the nature of negative bias.

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Research piece two: Formerly depressed patients continue to focus on the negative

New research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that individuals who’ve successfully emerged from a major depressive episode (as compared to those who have never experienced depression) often spend more of their cognitive resources processing negative information and less processing positive information.4 This cognitive pattern places them at a heightened risk of experiencing a relapse into depression.

To put it more simply, those who’ve come out of depression tend to continue to accentuate the negative and minimize the positive – and doing so puts them at risk of getting depressed again.

Lead author Alainna Wen PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains:

“Our findings suggest that people who have a history of depression spend more time processing negative information, such as sad faces, than positive information, such as happy faces, and that this difference is greater compared to healthy people with no history [of depression].

“Because more negative thinking and mood and less positive thinking and mood are characteristic of depression, this could mean that these individuals are at a greater risk for having another depressive episode.”

My take?

Depressive ‘headline thinking‘, in which life is seen in all-or-nothing terms, and negative bias, in which negatives are seen as pervasive, stable, and personal while positives are either dismissed or not even perceived, are virtually always evident in depressed people.

I sometimes liken depression to a kind of dictatorship or closed society in which only the reality that fits the prevailing propaganda of the narrow ideology is permitted. Even the way the past is viewed can be done with a depressive filter.

Depression can be like a kind of dictatorship or closed society in which only the reality that fits the prevailing propaganda of the narrow ideology is permitted. Click to Tweet

Cognitive therapy seems to confer a greater decrease in the risk of relapse into depression than antidepressants.5 This tells us that any treatment for depression should incorporate client education on the true nature of depressive biases, so they can begin to spot them and challenge them.

In his excellent book Learned Optimism, the putative “father of positive psychology”, Martin Seligman, recounts how teaching children to switch from depressive interpretations of reality to non-depressive, more inclusive, and wider interpretations helped inoculate those children against developing depression, even in the presence of later risk factors.

If we can teach clients to more frequently desist from using negative bias and learn to allow for at least the possibility of more positive aspects of reality, then we can help them live more fully and shield them somewhat from sliding back into this most horrible of conditions.

Of course, I’m not suggesting depression is just a condition of cognitive distortions or that cognitive approaches should be the only approach to this multifaceted condition. And in fact, yet more research seems to show that hypnosis can help change the way the brain processes information.

Research piece three: Hypnosis changes the way our brain processes information

Researchers from the University of Turku in Finland have made a significant discovery regarding how the brain operates during hypnosis.6 Normally, the different regions of our brain are interconnected in ways that facilitate flexible responses to external stimuli. However, during hypnosis, the individual regions of the brain operate more independently – for the subject of this study, at least.

The study focused on a single individual who had previously shown a strong response to hypnotic suggestions, experiencing phenomena that are not typically possible in a normal waking state, such as vivid and controlled hallucinations.

The study employed a novel method to track how magnetically-induced electrical currents spread in the brain during hypnosis and normal wakefulness, offering a unique perspective on the neural processes involved in hypnosis. The study maintained strict control over experimental conditions, confirming that the effects observed were indeed linked to the altered state induced by hypnosis.

Henry Railo, a researcher at the University of Turku, explains, “In a normal waking state, different brain regions share information with each other, but during hypnosis this process is kind of fractured, and the various brain regions are no longer similarly synchronized.”

This finding challenges current ideas on how the brain works during hypnosis, where the type and extent of neural processing changes has been a subject of debate. Additionally, it presents a novel mechanism by which the behavioural and experiential alterations that occur during hypnosis, such as increased susceptibility to suggestions, may occur, at least in some individuals.

Overall, this research represents a significant step forward in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying hypnosis, shedding light on the changes in brain function that occur in this unique state of consciousness.

My take?

Some people have tried to argue that there is no such state as hypnosis, or that it is merely someone playing a social role and not an actual shift in consciousness.

In the ‘paradoxical state’ of sleep, brain-wave patterns appear to be the same or similar to waking consciousness. Yet almost everyone agrees that dream sleep is a special state of consciousness distinct from normal waking consciousness.

This research, though limited to only one subject, indicates that the way the brain works is demonstrably different during hypnotic trance.

It’s interesting that brain areas that usually coordinate can compartmentalize during hypnosis. This may explain how hypnotized subjects can focus so intently on one area of reality that they ‘block out’ or compartmentalize and let go of negative feelings or thoughts, or even physical pain.

The capacity of hypnotized subjects to inhabit a different form of consciousness, one in which they can narrow their focus onto desired outcomes and good feelings, makes hypnosis a unique and valuable therapeutic tool.

Now for a change of focus.

Research piece four: The age at which we are happiest

Levels of happiness across the various stages of life has been a subject of extensive research for decades, yet a conclusive answer has remained elusive. However, a research team has recently provided valuable insights into this inquiry through a thorough meta-analytic review.7

The study focused on three key elements of subjective wellbeing: life satisfaction, positive emotional states, and negative emotional states.

According to their findings, life satisfaction among respondents followed a distinct pattern: it decreased from ages 9 to 16, experienced a modest resurgence up to the age of 70, then gradually declined again, reaching its lowest point around the age of 96.

The researchers also documented a decline in positive states from 9 years right through to 94 years, alongside a decline in negative states from age 22 through to age 60, after which negative states started to rise again.

My take?

Positive feelings going down between the ages of 9 and 16 may have to do with the experience of puberty and the physical changes that go along with it, as well as peer pressure and possibly bullying.

The decline in happiness after 70 may have to do with the increased likelihood of physical ailments, diminished social connections, loss of independence, and friends and acquaintances passing away.

As practitioners we need to be aware of the different risks of depression at different life stages and also promote positive feelings rather than simply seeking to minimize negative feelings.

These findings underscore the importance of acknowledging and promoting subjective wellbeing across all stages of life.

The implications are significant, particularly for the development of intervention programs aimed at preserving or enhancing subjective wellbeing – especially in children and in later life, but, really, at any stage.

Finally, some other research has dug more fully into precisely what makes us happy.

Research piece five: Meeting physical and emotional needs can prevent depression

In new research published in Nature Mental Health, an international research team investigated lifestyle, genetics, brain structure, and immune/metabolic systems as potential factors influencing the onset of depression.8

Depression, which is estimated to affect 1 in 20 adults globally,9 poses a significant public health challenge, particularly since the risk factors are so multifaceted and encompass both biological and lifestyle aspects.

To explore this complex interplay, the researchers harnessed the extensive UK Biobank, analyzing data from nearly 290,000 individuals over 9 years, including 13,000 with depression.

The research identified seven key lifestyle factors associated with reduced depression risk:

  • Moderate alcohol consumption
  • A healthy diet
  • Regular physical activity
  • Adequate sleep (7-9 hours per night)
  • Non-smoking
  • Limited sedentary behaviour
  • Frequent social connections.

Among these, adequate sleep made the most substantial difference, lowering depression risk by 22%, while social connection was most protective against recurrent depressive disorder, decreasing risk by 18%.

Most significantly, the study documented how lifestyle affects immune and metabolic function, which in turn affects our depression risk.

Stress-induced alterations in blood sugar regulation, impaired immune function, and accelerated cellular and molecular damage were among the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle. Notably, poor physical activity, insufficient sleep, and social isolation contributed to these adverse effects.

So lifestyle not only influences brain health and cognition but also indirectly promotes a healthier immune system and metabolism.

The study advocates for early education in schools on the significance of a healthy lifestyle, as depression can manifest as early as adolescence or young adulthood.

My take?

This research underscores the critical role of a healthy lifestyle in mitigating depression risk, exceeding genetic predisposition in importance.

It’s interesting that the researchers found that lifestyle factors outweighed any seeming genetic predisposition to depression. Other research has found that a profound sense of meaning and purpose in life are also protective against depression.10

All this starts to look very much like the human needs that Human Givens psychology have been promoting for decades in order to help people thrive.

An understanding of the full array of needs is vital for any practitioner, as is the art of helping our clients meet this full array of needs in balance.

In some ways we really are what we habitually do, and part of any therapeutic intervention for depression needs to be an encouragement of healthy lifestyle habits and also healthy pleasures.

It’s great to see insights from the Human Givens approach being scientifically validated. It’s also encouraging to see depression being viewed not just as a simplistic condition of too few of the right brain chemicals but a complex interplay between biology and the way we live our lives.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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  1. Mamat, Z., & Anderson, M. C. (2023). Improving mental health by training the suppression of unwanted thoughts. Science Advances, 9(38), eadh5292.
  2. Erskine, J. A. (2008). Resistance can be futile: Investigating behavioural rebound. Appetite, 50(2-3), 415-421.
  3. Ferreira, C., Palmeira, L., Trindade, I. A., & Catarino, F. (2015). When thought suppression backfires: its moderator effect on eating psychopathology. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 20, 355-362.
  4. Wen, A., Fischer, E. R., Watson, D., & Yoon, K. L. (2023). Biased cognitive control of emotional information in remitted depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of psychopathology and clinical science.
  5. DeRubeis, R. J., Siegle, G. J., & Hollon, S. D. (2008). Cognitive therapy versus medication for depression: treatment outcomes and neural mechanisms. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(10), 788-796.
  6. Tuominen, J., Kallio, S., Kaasinen, V., & Railo, H. (2021). Segregated brain state during hypnosis. Neuroscience of consciousness, 2021(1), niab002
  7. Buecker, S., Luhmann, M., Haehner, P., Bühler, J. L., Dapp, L. C., Luciano, E. C., & Orth, U. (2023). The development of subjective well-being across the life span: A meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies. Psychological bulletin, 149(7-8), 418.
  8. Zhao, Y., Yang, L., Sahakian, B. J., Langley, C., Zhang, W., Kuo, K., … & Cheng, W. (2023). The brain structure, immunometabolic and genetic mechanisms underlying the association between lifestyle and depression. Nature Mental Health, 1(10), 736-750.
  10. Baquero-Tomás, M., Grau, M. D., Moliner, A. R., & Sanchis-Sanchis, A. (2023). Meaning in life as a protective factor against depression. Frontiers in Psychology, 14

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