Put Down the Blob, Stop Thinking — And Walk!

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photo by asher isbrucker (creative commons)

Noted in both the Washington Post and the New York Times this morning, research just out (Monday) suggests that walking in nature helps reduce rumination (brooding, obsessing over unsolvable problems). The mechanism is unclear.

Why is that important? Because solid research (see Lyuborminsky) has indicated that rumination is both a symptom and cause of depression. Non-depressed folk that ruminate are much more likely to later become depressed. Depressed folk that ruminate are much more likely to become more depressed.

The researcher, Gregory Bratman at Stanford, measured bloodflow to a part of the brain associated with rumination, the subgenual prefrontal cortex. (In research on meditation, the prefrontal cortex has also been implicated in self-referential thought, and that self-referential thought is associated with unhappiness.) Post-walk, participants showed small but significant reduction of bloodflow to that part of the brain.

The Post also noted that short micro-breaks of looking at nature have “rejuvenating effects” on the brain. And the Post also noted that research that relies on brain scans to draw conclusions remains controversial. It’s certainly true that studies that measure something in the brain seem to be hailed as irrefutable by the press (see Blobology).

Still, if you’re depressed, take a walk! Or just go outside and take in some trees. It really does make a difference.

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10 Insights into a Misunderstood Condition

A couple of interesting items in this UK article. For instance:

4. Depression blurs memory

One of the lesser known symptoms of depression is its adverse effect on memory.

Over the years studies have shown that people experiencing depression have particular problems with declarative memory, which is the memory of specific facts like names or places (Porter et al., 2003).

Part of the reason for this may be that depressed people lose the ability to differentiate between similar experiences (Shelton & Kirwan, 2013). It’s another facet of the tendency to over-generalise.

Depression blurs other types of memory as well, though, including the ability to recall meanings and to navigate through space.