A recent study found a correlation between brooding and negative thoughts.
The study had the goal of seeing how/what thoughts arise and unfold over time when people have nothing to focus on. It also had a major emphasis on the effect of brooding on one’s mind.
Quentin Raffaelli, a graduate student at the University of Arizona’s Department of Psychology, and Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Raffaelli’s advisor who is also the Director of the Neuroscience of Emotion and Thought Lab, worked on the project together.
Andrews-Hanna explained the importance of the project came down to how observing thought patterns can better explain the way they affect mental health.
“By training people to voice their idle thoughts aloud for ten minutes, we could observe how healthy and unhealthy thinking patterns started to surface. Our team was able to quantify several different characteristics of thinking, including what people thought about, how long certain thoughts lasted, and how similar in topic each thought was to each other,” Andrews-Hanna described.
To test this, Raffaelli and the other researchers conducted two studies using the “think aloud paradigm.” According to this methodology, participants were sat in a normally lit room for 10 minutes and given instructions to continually voice the thoughts coming to their minds. Participants consisted of UA undergraduate students volunteering to receive class credit or monetary compensation.
After accounting for failed attempts, the first study involved 27 participants. Each were put in a room with an audio recorder and little outside stimuli, which meant they had no access to their electronic devices and were alone inside the room.
“The first study was a smaller sample and we wanted to see whether we were good at capturing people’s inner thoughts. The most important thing… was to try and quantify different dynamic measures like how long were the thoughts, how many times did they transition, how many topics did the subject cover,” Raffaelli explained .
After the study each participant was asked whether they censored themselves and how accurately these thoughts reflected those they experience in their daily lives. This was done in the hopes of ensuring the results could be analyzed in terms of how people normally think and that the setting of the experiment did not heavily affect the participant’s thoughts.
The recording was then transcribed and analyzed for trends. One trend mentioned in the discussion portion of the first study, was that participants seemed to have more negative thoughts whenever they narrowed on a topic instead of moving on. Inversely, more positive thoughts were recorded if the participant was able to move from one topic to the next in a timely manner.
Study number two had the exact same procedure as the first study but involved a sample of 51 individuals and was meant to help answer how rumination affected one’s thought process. Rumination is where someone has obsessive thinking about an idea or situation. To gauge this, each participant filled out a questionnaire about rumination called the Rumination Response Scale. These scores could then be compared to the data found in their dialogue.
“During the second test we wanted to see how the data related to trend rumination… Rumination and brooding in particular, which is a subtype of rumination that we measured, is a form of thinking that is very common [in those with] depression and anxiety,” Raffaelli said.
Raffaelli continued to say how rumination is a natural response that many people have throughout their life as they attempt to solve their problems, but it is widely accepted that it can be linked with mental health issues like anxiety and depression if one ruminates on the same things for too long.
The length of thoughts and the number of thoughts were, on average, the same between each study. In contrast though, the second study’s discussion expanded on that of the first’s, saying that individuals who self-reported that they ruminate a lot also had thoughts fixated on past events, used the first-person perspective and focused on more negative topics.
Also stated in the second study’s discussion, as well as in other texts, brooding can lead to a more rigid thought structure and can impede on one’s emotional balance.
Considering the recent pandemic and the world’s experience with quarantine, Raffaelli believes that the results of this study are important as people learn to be more comfortable with their day-to-day, unfocused thoughts.
“For the COVID-19 situation, there was a spike of substance abuse…basically there was more anxiety and people were cut off from the world. They were left alone with their thoughts for a very elongated amount of time… People are not used to dealing with their thoughts,” Raffaelli said.
Andrews-Hanna has high hopes that studies like this one can lead to discoveries on just how individuals should cope with their own thoughts.
“Even though the study was conducted before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we think our findings are relevant to the pandemic considering the increased isolation and idle time, paralleling a rise in symptoms of poor mental health...Now that we've mapped out differences between healthy and unhealthy idle thinking, we think it may be possible to teach people how to maximize the benefits of idle thought and live happier, healthier lives,” Andrews-Hanna said.
On top of this, Raffaelli thinks that due to the modern world’s obsession with staying busy and perhaps its reliance on technology to fill up free time, people are struggling to cope with the thoughts that come when one finally slows down.
“Society pushes people to constantly be busy and at the same time there are all these things we use to distract ourselves [and] escape from our inner mental life whenever we have the opportunity to do so. [When] we have to be alone with our thoughts, suddenly we have no experience doing so and we find ourselves unable to do so,” Raffaelli said.
In the future, he believes it could be important to study individuals with a lot of experience in meditating and those who are frequently alone with their thoughts to find a path for others who are struggling so they can recover some control over their mind.
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