Magazine article Science News

Focused Attention Boosts Depressed Memory

Magazine article Science News

Focused Attention Boosts Depressed Memory

Article excerpt

Severe depression not only produces feelings of despair and helplessness, but also has the capacity to stiffle memory. One theory holds that a depressed mood disturbs the ability to use mental strategies for remembering information. A new study, however, points to memory's resilience in the face of depression.

Depressed individuals who use a simple technique to focus their attention perform just as well on a standard memory test as do nondepressed folks, report psychologists Paula T. Hertel of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Stephanie S. Rude of the University of Texas at Austin.

They say their findings suggest that depressed people get distracted by any thoughts that come to mind -- not just by negative ruminations about themselves, as some psychologists believe. Thus, depression sufferers can boost their memory by focusing on external cues that guide attention to a specific task, Hertel and Rude contend in the September JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: GENERAL.

Henry C. Ellis, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, calls the study "a major achievement," providing the first clear evidence that focused attention can reverse depression-linked memory deficits.

The Texas researchers compared 26 depressed outpatient with 16 formerly depressed individuals and 16 people with no psychiatric problems. Currently depressed volunteers suffered from moderate to severe forms of the mood disorder.

All participants viewed a sequence of 40 common nouns on a computer screen and decided whether each word fit sensibly into a corresponding incomplete sentence. Some sentences required close inspection to decipher whether the noun fit in.

To focus the attention of half the participants, the investigators asked them to repeat aloud each noun and their decision about it before pressing the appropriate computer key and moving on to the next trial. …

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