A Better Mood – It's All in the Mind

A Better Mood – It's All in the Mind

Can you boost your mood simply by actively engaging the power of thought? BIU's renowned cognitive neuroscientist, Prof. Moshe Bar, is exploring ways to improve the mood of people suffering from depression by altering their thought patterns.

Our mood is an emotional state in flux, with ups and downs.  When the going is “good,” we feel confident, serene, happy and motivated. When it's “bad” we feel sad, worried, unmotivated and sometimes fatigued. Our mood is influenced by our surroundings and life events, and affected by our psychological resilience as well as by our natural predisposition to pessimism or optimism. However, according to Moshe Bar, Director of BIU’s Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, there’s another factor that plays a crucial role – our thought patterns.

Bar maintains that mood swings are like flying a kite which fluctuates according to the wind. “Just as a kite flies high when wind conditions are opimal, when we’re in a good mood, we 'flying high', more able to recognize opportunities and act on them, and become productive and industrious members of society who enjoy life.”

Everyone experiences mood swings, which, says Bar, motivate people to strive for success and learn from experience. However, being in the same mood for an extended period of time, especially if it’s a bad mood, may lead to clinical depression. Prolonged depression may have physiological repercussions, such as heart problems, and can also have financial and social ramifications. Modern medicine has come up with a number of drugs, and in extreme cases even shock treatments. Psychology offers therapy, and there are also alternative medicines, such as homeopathy.

Mental Impasse

Prof. Bar compares the thought patterns of people suffering from depression with those of people with normative frames of mind, in an effort to find a cognitive solution to treating depression. Bar admits that diagnosing a mindset is no easy task: “Unlike emotions such as love, hate or fear, which can be accurately defined, moods are difficult to study and analyze, as their origins are not readily apparent.”

As a leading cognitive neurologist who focuses on brain thought processing and mechanisms such as memory, awareness and brain visions, Bar examines novel modes of therapy. In a research study he conducted among people suffering from depression, Prof. Bar discovered that they all share a similar thought pattern called “rumination.” “These people fixate, or “ruminate,” on one single frame of mind. For example, a person who made an inappropriate comment would obsess about it for the rest of the day: ‘Why did I say that? I shouldn’t have said that. I’m such an idiot…’ And so the vicious cycle continues. This may happen to people not suffering from depression, but the difference is that they let go of it after a few minutes, and are no longer bothered by the event. Even if they recall it sometime in the future, they would not obsess over it. The healthy brain is associative, moving forward from one thought to the next.”


Associative Thinking

Is it possible to modify the frame of mind for people suffering from depression? This is the question confronting Prof. Bar at this stage of his research. “We are not trying to change what these people think about,” clarifies Bar. “If someone lost a member of their family we can’t just tell them to forget about it. It is truly sad, and that’s a life event that has to be dealt with. But if the person can’t return to a functional state, continues to suffer from bad moods and is ‘stuck’ for no other apparent reason, we try to bring him or her back to the healthier, associative frame of mind. As scientists, we can study not only the phenomenon of depression, but also develop techniques like cognitive exercise games, which show them how to flow from one thought to the next and how to think using a broader perspective.”

A “fixated” frame of mind is also common among people suffering from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and addictions. If his research proves that thought patterns are subject to change, Prof. Bar believes many people might benefit. In fact, he declares, thought-changing techniques can help us all change our mood.

His researchexamines the brain structures of people suffering from clinical depression. MRI images of these people show that the continued state of depression affects the structure of their hippocampus (the area of the brain affecting recall of facts and events). This alteration is reversible using anti-depressants, but Bar’s team is examining whether it can be fixed using cognitive thought- pattern changes instead. “If we succeed by employing cognitive means, it may very well affect the concentration of the brain chemicals in these depressed individuals, and eventually, their neurotransmitters will balance out to fit their mood." Notes Prof. Moshe Bar, "This is still just an idea, but we are very optimistic.”  Now that is indeed a positive mood-changer!