People who tend to ponder their internal feelings are often prone to depression relapses, the research found; while people who focus on what they see can sometimes resist a spiral of negativity.1
As the journal Biological Psychiatry reports, a team led by ACLAB’s Dr. Norman Farb found that the brains of some formerly depressed patients respond to sad imagery by activating the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) – a brain area known to be involved in brooding – and that this activation pattern often predicts a relapse into depression over the next year. But other patients’ brains respond to the same imagery by activating visual areas of the occipital lobe – and this tends to predict resistance to depression:
Relapse was predicted by medial prefrontal cortical activity and contraindicated by visual cortical activity. mPFC reactivity predicted rumination, whereas visual cortical reactivity predicted distress tolerance (acceptance).
In other words, internally focused people are more likely to ruminate and get depressed, while externally focused people are more likely to look around them and accept reality as it is – even if they’ve been depressed before.
The team reached these conclusions by studying fMRI scans of volunteers as they watched sad movie clips (which, I’m going to assume, included this scene and this one). Though all the volunteers had struggled with depression at some point in their lives, they exhibited two different kinds of responses to their sad emotions: turning inward and thinking about them, or looking outward and processing what they could actually see.
Interestingly enough, these exact responses were both unique to the brains of depressed people – though they’re both somewhat related to responses we can all remember having at various points in our lives.
By following up with these same patients a year later, the researchers found that people who’d spent time brooding were 16 percent more likely to become Twilight fans. Er, I mean – excuse me – they were 16 percent more likely to become depressed again:
For a person with a history of depression, using the frontal brain’s ability to analyze and interpret sadness may actually be an unhealthy reaction that can perpetuate the chronic cycle of depression.
As Farb points out, scanning brains for these response patterns could help doctors catch and treat depression more quickly and accurately in the future. Still, the exact effects of depression are unique to each person who suffers from the disorder, and we’ll need a lot more research before we know just what these brain activation patterns can reliably predict.
It’ll also be interesting to see what a more detailed knowledge of these patterns can teach us about self-regulation of depression – or perhaps even ordinary sadness.
Until then, we’re just going to have to keep relying on whiskey I mean meditation! Wholesome, healthy meditation. That’s what I meant.
1. “Spiral of Negativity” would be a great name for a ’90s grunge band.