A tendency to get stuck in a pattern of negative thinking is common to the depressed person, writes Guardian opinion editor David Shariatmadari in a long consideration of the affliction.

Shariatmadari explains the phenomenon by way of neuroscientist Marc Lewis. “Any set of thoughts that is repeated builds synaptic pathways,” Lewis explains. “Thoughts that are repeated over and over build structure into the brain and therefore increase their own likelihood.” 

This is the essence of habit formation, and in extreme cases, addiction. In those situations, however, there’s a payoff – whether it’s the satisfaction of completing your daily crossword or the pleasure of an addictive drug. Why should negative thoughts recur? “Because we keep trying to find a way out of them,” says Lewis. “The possibility that I am bad, that nobody likes me, that I’m not doing well enough, the fact that I’ve lost my job and can’t figure out what to do with my life: those kinds of thoughts draw us in. You try to fix [the problem], you try to correct it, you rehearse it.” As time goes on, he says, “you build your prison by continually repeating those particular thoughts. Until that becomes your mental world.” …

It’s the same with “emotional reactivity”. Increased reactivity (otherwise known as neuroticism) brings some benefits: an obsessive striving after goals and a tendency to avoid risks. Beyond a certain point, however, it increases the likelihood of mental ill-health. In other words, depression is a spectre that will always accompany the human race, even as it continues to adapt better to its environment. …

Borrowing from complex systems theory, Lewis calls depression “a very strong psychological attractor”. The dictionary definition of an attractor is “a value or set of values toward which variables in a dynamical system tend to evolve”. That’s not so easy to grasp – but think of it as a sort of sinkhole, a point to which a rolling ball in a landscape will start to move once you’ve given it a push. “Depression is a place to which mental processes converge when they’re perturbed from different starting points. Once the attractor grows in power it becomes a more and more likely outcome for any given stream of thoughts,” he says.

Read more here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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