Illustration: Jez Burrows
Why is depression marked by a sluggish mind while racing thoughts are a symptom of mania? That's a question that occurred to Emily Pronin while she was working on her PhD in psychology at Stanford University nine years ago. When she joined the Princeton faculty in 2003 as an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs, she started experimenting with getting people to think faster to see if doing so would brighten their mood. She asked subjects to read moving words on a screen at twice their normal reading speed, or watch I Love Lucy episodes both in regular time and on fast-forward. Then she measured how they felt. "We found a consistent tendency for fast thinking to induce a positive mood, and to increase feelings of energy and self-esteem," Pronin says.
During the studies, however, Pronin realized that rapid thinking isn't always a recipe for elation—as when you're anxious, for example. Conversely, during times of stress, letting the mind slow down—say, through meditation—can make you happier. These insights led to the other piece of what Pronin calls mental motion: variability. "It's not only the speed of your thoughts that matters; it's also whether they're moving like cars on a highway from point A to point B, or just spinning in one place," she says. "And in further experiments, we found that varied thoughts tend to be more uplifting, whereas repetitive thinking tends to be a mood downer."
While other mental health researchers have yet to confirm Pronin's results, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, professor of psychology at Yale and author of Women Who Think Too Much, says that repetitive thinking is definitely a hallmark of rumination, "which we have found makes people more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and binge eating." She also agrees that a good strategy for breaking a rumination cycle is meditation (as Pronin says, "opening your mind to whatever thoughts come in").
When you feel stuck in low gear: Princeton psychology professor Emily Pronin suggests jump-starting your brain by doing one of the following:
From the June 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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