Israeli Computer 'Game' Teaches Brain to Be Happier

A cognitive training program developed by Israeli psychologists quickly and easily decreases rumination and the resulting blues.

Andrew Tobin
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Andrew Tobin

There are people who think dwelling on their emotions is helpful, viewing it as a kind of wrestling match with their inner demons. But according to psychologists, it’s the demons who are coming out on top. Rumination has been proved to distract people from their problems and make them depressed.

Now, Israeli psychology researchers have shown that a computer program they developed decreases rumination and the resulting blues by strengthening the brain’s control over emotion. The findings, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science in April, support the theory that this type of worrisome thinking is caused by an inability to tune out distracting emotions. A version of the training used in the study could one day allow people to treat their own depression and other mental disorders using a computer or mobile device.

“Rumination, like depression, is very difficult to escape,” said Nilly Mor, a psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Education who co-led the study. “So it is very promising that we have been able to show immediate effects on ruminative thinking and negative mood from one short training session.”

Don’t overthink it

Made sexy by Hollywood hunks like Marlon Brando, rumination is basically just a fatalistic kind of worry. People who ruminate think repetitively and passively about their unhappiness — they worry about what is wrong with them, how they are screwing up their lives and the like. These individuals may believe they are working through their problems, but they are actually less likely than other people to do anything about them, psychologists say. Instead, they become overwhelmed and depressed.

Rumination is also a risk factor for anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders and possibly for self-harm.

To test the theory, suggested by recent research, that rumination is the result of an inability to suppress unnecessary emotions, the Israeli researchers studied the effects of computerized cognitive training on 85 students at Hebrew University. The training was designed to engage the brain’s cognitive control mechanism — which is involved in attention, reasoning and language comprehension — to limit the distracting influence of sad information. Similar cognitive-bias training has achieved impressive results treating anxiety.

The training in the study involved two simple tasks. First, participants were instructed to identify the direction of an arrow in the middle of a line of arrows. Then, after they were briefly shown a sad or neutral photograph, they were instructed to determine whether a square was blue or green. The series was repeated some 400 times over about 30 minutes. A control group was given an easy version of the arrow task, designed to be ineffective.

After the training, the participants were asked to recall a recent upsetting personal event. Finally, they answered questions designed to gauge their level of rumination, at the moment and in everyday life, and their mood.

As expected, participants who got the real training were much less likely than the controls to ruminate or be in a bad mood after seeing the sad photos. Most significantly for mental health, chronic ruminators in the training group did not end up more ruminative or depressed, whereas they did in the control group.

Keep calm and carry on

The results provide the strongest support yet for the theory that rumination is caused by a lack of ability to control cognition. They also suggest that the training strengthens cognitive control of unhappy information.

Based on previous research, it is thought to work like this: When the participants have to ignore the other arrows to identify the incongruous middle one, their cognitive control kicks in to suppress irrelevant information. With this “mental muscle” flexed, they are less distracted by the sad photo and able to focus on determining the color of the box. The more they practice, the stronger the effect.

Neuroimaging studies suggest that cognitive control is associated with the inferior frontal gyrus, part of the frontal lobe of the brain that is involved in inhibition, while the reaction to the sad photo probably comes from the amygdala, which is central to emotion. The training apparently strengthens the link between these two brain regions — though so far only for a few minutes.

“If we can show the results are long-lasting and can be replicated, this could be an important new treatment for rumination,” said Noga Cohen, a coleader of the study who recently completed her doctorate at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Psychology. She has since used a six-day executive control training to create lasting changes in the brain’s emotional regions.

Current interventions for rumination require patients to work with a therapist to take conscious control of their thoughts. In contrast, the training can be done independently by anyone with a computer and requires little effort – since it modifies cognitive processes in the brain at an unconscious level. One day, ruminators could even treat themselves on the bus or subway using a smartphone or tablet. In the meantime, the results are something to think about.

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