Study Suggests Depressed People Have Trouble Enjoying Positive Experiences

March 23, 2009 07:30 AM
by Liz Colville
An Ohio State University study used a computer game to examine how depressed people think about negative and positive experiences.

“A Failure to Appreciate Positive Experiences”

A team of psychology professors and graduate students at Ohio State University used a computer game called “BeanFest” that “offers a unique and powerful way to measure how people learn new attitudes,” according to study coauthor Daniel Strunk, an assistant professor at Ohio State, quoted in an Ohio State press release.

The team examined 34 college students considered either clinically depressed or not depressed at the time of the study. The depressed students were classified as suffering from mild, moderate or severe depression. In the game, the object was to gain points by selecting beans that were physically classified as “good” and “bad,” with the good beans gaining the player points, if selected, and the bad beans losing them points.

In a test phase, subjects were asked to recall the beans they had seen. “Non-depressed students identified the good beans better than the depressed students, who failed to identify good beans better than chance,” ScienceDaily writes.

Narrowing in on how depressed people deal with positive experiences, Strunk said, “The depressed people showed a bias against learning positive information although they had no trouble learning the negative.” While the authors say more research needs to be done, they contend the findings can help patients with depression. For instance, therapists can help patients place more emphasis on positive new experiences.

Background: Recent studies of depression and the “optimism bias”

A 2007 study at New York University suggested a neurological link between the optimistic viewpoint that humans tend to have about the future and the pessimistic viewpoint that depressed people experience. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found evidence suggesting that humans’ “optimism bias” “may be rooted in the same brain circuitry as depression,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study.

Referencing a 2004 study on the connection between an overactive brain circuit and depression, the NYU study proposed that the part of the brain known as the rostral anterior cingulate cortex “weighs emotional, motivational and autobiographical information with an eye for the positive” and that when the brain is deprived of serotonin, there is “loss of focus on the positive” by subjects and fMRI scans show less activity in this area of the brain.

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Related Topic: Using cognitive therapy and positive thinking to combat depression

A method of psychotherapy that focuses on positive thinking is at the root of a large national project recently launched in the U.K. Spearheaded by University of Bath professor Paul Stallard, who practices Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), the project has recruited 7,000 school children to be part of a trial aimed at preventing depression in young people.

The students, aged 13 to 16, “will be taught how to acknowledge their personal strengths, identify negative thought processes and develop problem solving skills … in 10 weekly classroom sessions,” according to a press release from the University of Bath.

Reference: Coping with anxiety and depression


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