What Turns Wandering Thoughts Into Something Worse?

Tara Haelle

October 08, 2021

With all the lockdowns and social distancing of the pandemic, millions of people have had a lot of time to themselves. Many may have filled that time with bread baking, long walks, or video games, but mind wandering during these periods was inevitable. Coincident with these experiences were increases in depression and anxiety, which could be linked to the same brain network that is thought to support a meandering mind, called the default mode network.

Scientists interested in this network wanted to understand how wandering thoughts can lead some people to a state of brooding in which the same negative thoughts resurface repeatedly. To gain some insight into these patterns, they recorded more than 2000 thoughts spoken aloud by 78 study participants who did nothing but let their minds wander for 10 minutes.

Senior researcher Jessica Andrews‐Hanna, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, and colleagues hoped that analyzing these stream-of-consciousness thoughts could yield insights into how people become stuck in negative mental spirals.

They found that most participants thought about the present or future in words that were neither particularly negative nor positive. Almost three quarters of the thoughts were focused inward on the person or were imaginative.

Negativity Breeds Negativity

But the investigators found an interesting pattern with regard to negative thoughts. The more negative someone's thoughts became, the more likely that their next idea would be related to their previous one. In other words, negative thoughts created a chain reaction of more negative thoughts.

Positive thoughts, in contrast, tended to be followed by completely unrelated ruminations, indicating true mental meandering. The pattern suggested that negativity tends to narrow the range of thoughts, whereas positivity tends to expand it during periods in which the mind wanders.

The researchers also found, unsurprisingly, that negative thoughts that were focused on the self and on the past were more likely to result in brooding and that positive thoughts were less likely to arise.

Most study participants were young and educated and may have only said things that they were comfortable allowing the researchers to hear. And because the authors didn't ask participants about their moods, the investigators could not associate specific patterns of thought with any mental health conditions.

Although the findings, published in Scientific Reports, do not on their own point to solutions for depression or anxiety, they may offer a starting point for future research into how negative trains of thoughts begin — and perhaps how to derail them.

Sci Rep. Published online September 30, 2021. Full text

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