Have you ever noticed that when you are depressed that pretty much everything seems depressing? You may look at a couple happily walking down the street and all you are thinking about is how they are eventually going to get into an argument and break up… Or how they will eventually cheat on each other and end the relationship. Or maybe you are watching your children play and rather than thinking about how wonderful it is that they are happy, all you can think about is how sad it is that they will eventually grow up and leave the nest…
As you probably know by now, the way that our mind makes sense out of things or draws “meaning” from what it is experiencing, is by relating the information it is receiving to semantic, episodic and autobiographical memories that it has stored away. It is like a big filing system in a computer and when it receives a new experience it needs to go into the files to look at similar experiences to see “how this turns out…” if you will.
When your mind is routing around in it’s own filing system, what is very interesting is that there are many possible alternatives from which it can make sense out of the current experience. In other words, this is not a black and white search that will draw up “the exact, uniquely correct” piece of data that will help make sense of things. Experience is indeed subjective, and it is subjective for this very reason. The meaning that a given experience has is dependent not only upon the context it is occurring in but also upon what experiences it is related to… So the question becomes, how does our brain determine what experiences to relate this information/experience to?
Now this is, as you can imagine, a very loaded question and inherently has no simple answer. However, one attribute that is indeed a reliable and integral part of determining which types of memories are recalled is found in what is known as Mood Congruency. The term “mood congruency” refers to a process whereby a specific mood will evoke the recall of memories that are consistent with that very mood. In other words, if you are happy, then you will automatically recall happy memories and sad memories will become more repressed.
In an example given by J. M. G. Williams, (Professor of Clinical Psychology and Wellcome Principal Research Fellow at the University of Oxford) he describes a situation with a depressed patient that he worked with regarding her recollection of going swimming in her past. When she was depressed, she would describe the event as being stressful and humiliating and could really only think about how terrible she looked in a bathing suit. Interesting enough, when she was happy she would recall her swimming experience as being fun and really enjoyable…So why does this occur exactly? How is our brain creating this looping system?
Well it turns out that the culprit of mood congruency lies in the actual encoding of the memories in the first place… in 1982 a very bright Professor of Psychology from the University of York by the name of Alan Baddley stated this very clearly. When human’s find themselves in an “emotional” state, whether it be happy or sad, the cognitive material that is surrounding them is encoded in a way that is RELATED to the person’s current mental state. What this means is that the context in which an experience occurs is encoded INTERACTIVELY rather than simply in an additive fashion. As a direct result of the way in which the information is encoded, it’s future recall is made significantly easier when the person is in a similar state of mind. In other words, a depressed state will encode information in a depressed way and cause the person to recall this depressed information easier the next time they are depressed.
In an amazing FMRI study performed out of London, participants encoded (put to memory) positive and negative words and then were tested for their subsequent recall. The recall was performed during a number of induced positive and negative moods to see what was happening in the participants brains during their recall. There were two separate encoding “nodes” if you will that they were interested in watching. There are the subgenual cingulated which is associated with the encoding of positively valenced items and the posterior-lateral orbitofrontal cortex which is associated with the encoding of negatively valenced items. Their prediction what that where one was more active during encoding of a word, the same would be more active during the mood congruent retrieval of that same word…
Well their FMRI results showed just that. The node specific encoding of an item showed much more up-regulation activity during attempts to retrieve the same information during mood congruent conditions. In other words, the way a word was encoded dictated the way in which it was retrieved… Why is this important? Well when you are communicating with someone, isn’t it important to know not only what type of information they will be representing in their own speech but also how they will be processing your communication as well?
Have you ever noticed that when you are in an argument that it almost always spirals into itself and implodes into an un-constructive mess? While you are arguing, have you noticed how easily everything comes to mind that the other person did in the pass that made you mad? Or how about their uncanny ability to recall everything YOU did that made them mad? Or how about communicating with a depressed friend. When you are talking to them about how things “aren’t’ so bad” and how they “should cheer up”, isn’t it frustrating how they just continually produce “reasons” why things aren’t that good?
Now you know the reason why… It is NOT their fault. This is simply a naturally occurring neural mechanism that is working in an automatic and covert fashion that is keeping them in their current mental state. So, the question becomes “How do we deal with this from a communication stand point”.
That is a complex question and the notion of aptly dealing with it in a single post is almost absurd. That being said, I will give you a few tips on how to be more effective.
1. In a heated situation, your best bet is to simply walk away for a bit of time so that things can cool off. Although anger is a mental state, just like any other emotion it also involves hormones and bodily chemicals that are creating internal sensations. Unless you are a very skilled communicator and are effective in talking someone “down from a ledge”, you should agree to leave things alone until the two of you are more relaxed. Continuing on in a heated discussion will only snowball and result in exacerbating the situation.
2. In a situation where you are dealing with depression, try to get the person “away” for a bit. This means get them out of the house for a walk or anything else that involves activity. Depression is often a symptom of a person’s bodily chemical composition at the given time. Exercise, or any other form of movement caused the release of both serotonin and dopamine into the brain and body. Although a simple walk won’t make them ecstatic, they will indeed begin to move from their depressed state as a result of it. This in turn can help facilitate the flow of more constructive memories and information into their working memory.
3. In a situation where you are dealing with happiness… Enjoy it!
Mood congruence is a very real and important communication challenge that needs to be paid close attention to… not only in the people you communicate with but also in yourself while communicating.
To learn more about how the brain works to better your understanding of how to develop effective communication skills, please feel free to explore the rest of my blog The Communication Expert, or if I am online, please feel free to connect with me via Skype.