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Depressed Thoughts Hinder Memory/Concentration

Depressed Thoughts Hinder Memory/Concentration

A new study provides empirical proof that a depressive mood accompanied by depressive thoughts can impede concentration and memory.

Although it is accepted that the day-to-day burden from depression greatly affects job performance and personal relationships, the new research is the first to observe this phenomenon in a laboratory setting.

Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas have published their findings online in the journal Cognition and Emotion.

The findings may have implications for the way cognitive deficits are diagnosed and treated in depression.

In the study, individuals with depressed mood showed as much as a 12 percent reduction in memory compared to individuals without depressed mood when depressive thoughts were present. Yet, if the depressive thoughts were not present, they performed similarly to individuals without a depressed mood.

“The results suggest that individuals with and without depressed mood generally have a similar ability to actively remember information. However, when depressive thoughts are present, people with depressed mood are unable to remove their attention from this information, leading to deficits in their memory,” said graduate student Nicholas Hubbard, the study’s lead author.

“Depression is an interference phenomenon. Rumination and negative thought-loops interfere with a person’s ability to think,” said Bart Rypma, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas. 

“We hypothesize that when individuals with depressed mood are exposed to stimuli, such as a meaningful song or a place that evokes sad feelings, the brain fixates on that and can’t focus on daily tasks such as a phone conversation or completing a grocery list.

“In a traditional laboratory setting, external cues that induce depressive thoughts and therefore interfere with cognitive performance are eliminated. In our study, we found a way to incorporate them and observe their effects on memory.”

The study included 157 undergraduate students. All participants completed a computer-based depression inventory that measures self-reported, depressive symptoms experienced over the previous two-weeks. 60 participants were classified as having depressed mood and 97 as having non-depressed mood.

Researchers assessed working memory, the cognitive function that allows the brain to store information for short periods of time so that other cognitive processes can occur simultaneously.

Participants with and without depressed mood were asked to respond ‘True’ or ‘False’ to a sentence featuring either depressive thoughts (e.g., “I am sad,” “People don’t like me”) or neutral information (e.g. “Most people agree that Monday is the worst day of the week”), and then remember a string of numbers at the end.

People with depressed mood forgot more numbers than people without depressed mood when they responded to the sentence featuring negative information, but remembered just as many numbers when they responded to neutral information.

“Depression affects 151 million people worldwide and costs Americans $83 billion per year. Much of these costs are related to loss of productivity and increased rates of disability. Understanding and accurately diagnosing memory loss in depression is paramount for developing an effective therapeutic approach,” Hubbard explained.

“Our findings implicate that therapeutic approaches such as teaching one to recognize and inhibit depressive thoughts could be a key aspect to treating cognitive deficits in depression.”

Using the new study paradigm, the research team plans to study individuals who meet the clinical diagnosis for depression.

“In the past, imaging studies have shown brain differences between depressed and non-depressed individuals, but the cognitive tests did not match up,” said Rypma. “Now that we can reproduce the cognitive deficits in the laboratory, we can look at neural imaging studies with more confidence.”

Source: Center for BrainHealth

Woman having memory problems photo by shutterstock.

Depressed Thoughts Hinder Memory/Concentration

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Depressed Thoughts Hinder Memory/Concentration. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 8 Jan 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.