Working Memory Plays Role in Depressive Thinking

People with depression often have difficulty moving their minds away from the negative thoughts. Now, a new study provides evidential proof that those who suffer with depression ruminate on bad thoughts due to working memory. “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 and co-author of the study. Joorman believes that people with depression are unable to redirect their mind and therefore continue thinking about negative events. “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.

Joorman’s team decided to explore working memory in people with depression to determine what role it plays with regard to negative thoughts. The researchers enlisted 27 people without depression and 26 people with depressive symptoms for the study. They used a computer to display three words consecutively and asked the participants to remember the words in order, or in reverse. They were then asked to categorize the word as it was displayed on the computer screen.

The researchers noticed that the depressed participants had difficulty placing the words in order, whether forward or backward. When the prompts were negative words, such as “sadness” or “death,” their response time was delayed even further. “The order of the words sort of gets stuck in their working memory, especially when the words are negative,” says Joormann. She went on to say that their findings revealed that the participants who had the most difficulty with this task were also more likely to spend time pondering and thinking about troubling situations. Joorman hopes that this new research will lead to treatment options for people with depression that will teach them how to redirect their minds away from their negative thoughts.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Carol

    Carol

    June 8th, 2011 at 3:34 PM

    Do you think that this points to evidence that there are people who are predisposed to having depression and this is something that is internally based, and not caused by external factors? They are just meant to be that way?

  • Isabella Torres

    Isabella Torres

    June 8th, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    Thank goodness this is being researched. I know when I suffer from bad bouts of depression I do that: I go over and over things in my mind. My husband will say let it go and doesn’t understand that I can’t brush off things the way he can and just forget them.

    He’s a very “live in the moment” type of man and sees me as wallowing in what’s past instead of facing the present.

    Maybe he’s right and it’s the draw of the familiar…I don’t know.

  • lowoncash

    lowoncash

    June 9th, 2011 at 4:24 AM

    Being depressed will take over every reaction and thought. Not surprised to learn that people who are depressed have a hard time moving away from the negative. That is what is consuming them at this particular point in their lives. When this is how you feel, you get fixated on one thing and I know from personal experience that it feels almost impossible to move past feeling that way. There is help, there is hope, but when you are suffering it does not necessarily feel that way or that is something that is ever going to be possible.

  • JD

    JD

    June 9th, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    Depression not only makes you feel depressed but also makes you less capable of handling a lot of things or tasks.You will have troubles getting through the basic things of you are depressed to an extent.Been there done that.

  • Debra

    Debra

    June 10th, 2011 at 5:55 AM

    I have a theory-for an memory to be fresh you will have to pay full attention to the things around you.If that happens then you will be able to remember and cherish that memory for a long time.Now if people with depressive thoughts are able to recall things so well it can only mean that our attention to details and everything is actually heightened when we are in a tough situation.Maybe it happens by instinct.What do you guys think?

  • Margarette

    Margarette

    June 10th, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    Do you think that encouraging those with this sort of depression to think good thoughts and to focus on things that are positive could help them to battle their depression? I know that someone can’t necessarily be with them all of the time to encourage this but it could at least give them a starting point as to how they can cope with these feelings. I know it may sound a little too simplistic, but it could at least be a start for some who really are brought down daily by these depressive thoughts.

  • Lynne Pine

    Lynne Pine

    June 13th, 2011 at 2:07 AM

    @Isabella-Men tend to be good at that. We women are the champion worriers. :)

    Seriously now though, he is right. People who are incapable of realizing that they need to get over what happened when it’s not having an impact on the now will always wind up depressed.

    Why not give it a go and see how it works out anyway? No harm in trying.

  • Kelly Clearwater

    Kelly Clearwater

    June 13th, 2011 at 9:29 PM

    I feel that if I make a list of everything that depresses me, and write down how it affects me right now, I see exactly what the problem is. Some days I feel I’m depressed over absolutely nothing and tell myself I need to grow up and get over it.

    It helps me more to give myself a good shake than seeing my doctor does on those kinds of day. Not all the time but sometimes.

  • P.S. Clark

    P.S. Clark

    June 14th, 2011 at 11:04 PM

    I find when I let my mind wander, my brain brings up highly embarrassing things that happened 10-15 years ago, and it bugs the Heck out of me. Why do I remember those things but I can’t remember where I put my keys?

    I feel my mind works against me instead of for me allowing all that old baggage to resurface when it should have been long forgotten.

  • kenneth d.

    kenneth d.

    June 17th, 2011 at 9:57 PM

    @P.S – I get that all the time as well. More so when I’m utterly depressed and it just makes my mood even worse when I go over every little thing that has anchored itself into my brain.

    I know that’s not much help but I wanted you to know you’re not alone there in that. :)

  • angela graves

    angela graves

    June 18th, 2011 at 9:02 PM

    @JD: And it’s freaking annoying! Why can’t my brain just say “Alright, enough of this- no more depression, get out there and seize the day!” instead of being a useless organ that can’t handle a bit of stress? I see others around me under far more pressure than I am that manage to do it and never are depressed. It bugs me.

  • CognitiveThinker

    CognitiveThinker

    March 28th, 2012 at 12:09 AM

    I came across the blog doing a search on working memory and depression…suspecting they might be related, and sure enough, they are!

    I have a suggestion for all–why not try brain exercises that target your working memory? One proven one that can be played for free is Dual-N-Back. Lumosity has games that target working memory, and MindSparke is all about the Dual-n-Back game.

    Training your working memory can also help with ADD and OCD!

    Also, the book, “Feeling Good,” is the #1 self-help book for depression–it’s all about how to re-direct your thoughts using cognitive behavioral therapy.

    Good luck all! :)

  • Been There

    Been There

    July 14th, 2013 at 8:28 AM

    This article is exactly true. Depressive people make it a habit of reliving negative incidents. Even in their sleep. When you think about 1 negative event a hundred times, its almost like 100 bad things have happened to you.
    To break out of this cycle, here’s a simple formula.
    – 100 hours of meditation
    – 50 hours of brain traning (N Back, Lumosity – whatever)
    – 50 hours of learning a new skill (Language, Music, Car, Martial Art, whatever)
    Trust me, it will work. I have been there and life was hell. For 2 years, life is fantastic again.

  • Florian

    Florian

    July 9th, 2015 at 6:31 AM

    I began “dual n back” game 1 month ago with 25min per day (n=2 to n=4 with Brain workshop) because i had read that we could obtain a higher IQ in this way. But i noticed that the biggest effect on me is to be less depressive and more able to make things (more actions and less thinking). It’s why i found this article !
    Sorry for my English (French). Bye !

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