Think Quickly for a Natural High

With all the dreadful news these days, it's pretty easy to get depressed.

But researchers at Princeton and Harvard universities have discovered a way to make even depressing thoughts a little uplifting.

Think quickly, they say, and something happens in your brain that is akin to the euphoria after a five-mile run, or possibly even taking drugs to relieve depression.

They aren't sure why it works, and they don't know whether it will be effective in the long term, but they're convinced that making a brain work quickly is sort of like a mental elevator.

Psychologists Emily Pronin of Princeton and Daniel Wegner of Harvard were studying manic depression, a bipolar disorder that switches victims from being very excited and productive to being very depressed, when they hit upon an idea.

During the manic phase, patients generally feel very happy and creative, even as their brains experience the symptom of "racing thoughts."

It's a common experience even for people who aren't clinically ill. Most people at least occasionally feel uplifted when they think of a solution to a problem very quickly, or complete a test before the rest of the class.

So Pronin and Wegner set out to learn whether inducing subjects to think fast produced "manic" effects. In short, did it make them happy -- even if they were forced to think about something depressing?

The answer, according to their research, is yes. Their findings are published in the September issue of Psychological Science.

To do the experiment, participants were divided into two groups. One group read a series of statements at a fast clip, roughly twice as fast as the normal reading speed. The second group read at about half the normal reading speed.

The participants then completed a questionnaire in which they assessed their mood, energy level, self-esteem, and other factors using standard psychological measures.

But what makes the research particularly interesting is some of the participants read statements that could be very depressing, like "I want to go to sleep and never wake up," while others read happy statements like "Wow! I feel great."

It turns out that those who read the statements quickly reported feeling "happier, more energetic, more creative, more powerful and more grandiose" than those who read the statements slowly. And here's the key finding: Even those who read depressing statements were happier if they read them quickly.

That's significant, Pronin said in an interview, because it suggests that people who are clinically depressed may be able to help themselves even if they can't get rid of their negative thoughts. Making the brain race may ease the pain, she says.

Why?

"I have to say we don't know yet," she said.

But she offers a couple of possible explanations, which should be considered only as speculation at this point.

"When you are thinking fast, and you're aware that you're thinking fast, that may lead you to think you're a smart person," she said. "You must have a lot of energy to think so fast, and only a happy person would think that fast, so it's a sign that you're happy and energized."

Another possibility, she adds, is that thinking fast causes chemical changes in the brain.

"You could draw an analogy to running, or some form of physical exercise," she said. "Maybe it makes you feel good because you are proud of yourself that you did it. You think that only a happy, energized person would be able to go for a five-mile run. Or maybe it's because it does something chemically to your brain, releasing endorphins or something like that, and that makes you feel good."

She says the research will continue, focusing on why it works, and whether it has a long-term effect.

It's possible it could have a clinical application, especially for people who can't get away from negative thoughts.

"It's hard to change what people think about," she said. But maybe changing the pace will help, at least a little.

For those who aren't clinically depressed, but need a little help during these troubling times, perhaps just engaging in a bit of mental gymnastics might help.

She suggests that people try to solve problems more quickly, like reading at a faster pace, or completing a puzzle in quick-time.

It's not likely to stabilize a manic-depressive. But maybe it's worth a try.

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