Cognitive Daily

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifThe notion that thinking faster could make you happy may seem on the face of it absurd. But consider some of the evidence. People with mania, who complain of racing thoughts, often find the sensation exhilarating. When you meet someone who’s in a manic phase, they often seem cheerier and more pleasant than anyone you’ve known.

Research in an entirely different field, music, has found that the tempo of background music played during a test can affect performance in tests of spatial ability. The faster the music, the better the mood of the participants, and the better they performed.

Emily Pronin and Daniel Wegner took a look at this and other evidence and began to wonder if the speed of thought itself could be what caused mood to improve. But how do you increase the speed of thought?

They devised a simple and elegant method: They simply asked volunteers to read words aloud as they scrolled onto a computer screen, one letter at a time. In the slow-thought condition, the words scrolled at a rate of about 6 letters per second. In the fast thought condition, the words scrolled at 20 letters per second. This compares to about 12 letters per second when people read aloud in a natural voice. After the test, the fast readers indicated that they felt they were thinking at a faster rate compared to the slow readers, and they indeed said they were generally in a better mood.

But there are other ways to manipulate mood. One classic method was developed by Emmett Velten. Velten simply asked people to read statements that were progressively either more depressing or elating. At the outset, the statements are neutral (“today is no better or worse than any day”), but by the end, the statements are definitive (“wow! I feel great” or “I want to go to sleep and never wake up”). By the end of the procedure, people genuinely feel better or worse, depending on the particular sequence of phrases they have read.

Pronin and Wegner’s study combined both the Velten mood induction procedure with their own speed-of-thought manipulation. They divided 144 Princeton students into two groups. One group read the depressing Velten phrases, while the other group read the elating phrases. As you might guess, each of these groups was again divided in half, with half reading the phrases slowly and half reading the phrases quickly. Afterwards, mood was assessed by asking them to rate their levels of happiness, excitement, and enthusiasm on a scale of 1 to 9. Here are the results:

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The speed of the reading had a significant impact on the volunteers’ ratings of their positive emotions. In fact, the fast readers in the depression group rated their positive emotions just as high as the slow readers in the elation group. In separate responses, they also rated their energy, feelings of power, and creativity higher when they read faster. And of course, they rated their perceived thought speed significantly higher:

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Even after reading depression-inducing texts, thought speed was just as high as in the elation-inducing group.

One question this study doesn’t answer is what, precisely is occurring in the brain when we “think faster.” Are neurons firing more rapidly? Are we literally moving faster from thought to thought, keeping each thought in our minds for a shorter period of time? Perhaps the effort of reading quickly simply distracts readers from negative thoughts — the literal “speed” of thought doesn’t increase, but rather, the brain is occupied with a difficult task and so doesn’t have the ability to process other tasks, such as harboring negative feelings.

Still, as the authors point out, it does demonstrate quite effectively that processing negative language more quickly doesn’t appear to intensify the effect of the language — in fact the reverse occurs, and mood improves when we read faster. Pronin and Wegner even suggest that their speed-of-thought manipulation might have some applications in therapy, where people might be able to improve their mood through simple, fast-reading exercises.

Pronin, E., & Wegner, D.M. (2006). Manic thinking: Independent effects of thought speed and thought content on mood. Psychological Science, 17(9), 807-813.

Comments

  1. #1 Koray
    December 6, 2006

    Does this mean that listening to heavy metal actually improves my mood? Rock on.

  2. #2 PennyBright
    December 6, 2006

    What a great tidbit to know. I have clinical depression, and this sounds like a very nice little trick I’ll be able to use to help boost the efficacy of my treatment program all around.

  3. #3 Ryan Fox
    December 6, 2006

    Koray: It does for me! Actually, I listen to fast music while studying, and it does make me feel better about it, and makes me more productive.

  4. #4 robert
    December 7, 2006

    “But there are other ways to manipulate mood.”

    one manipulation is as good as the other, i suppose. and next month we’ll have another manipulation to play with. :)

    doesn’t really get to the root does it?

    happy holidays to y’all

  5. #5 M
    December 7, 2006

    Isn’t there a Prokofiev piece, played slowed slightly down, that can trigger low mood in a number of people? Since I have depression and rather live Prokofiev and other slow bits of music this is a bit of a bummer, but a useful thing to try out.

  6. #6 David Group
    December 7, 2006

    What if more neurons firing results in a chemical “tipping point” which, in turn, results in a better mood, analagous to a “runner’s high”?

  7. #7 Nate
    December 7, 2006

    M: the Prokofiev piece you are thinking of is “Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke” from Alexander Nevksy, I believe this was used in a recent University of Toronto study of depression.

  8. #8 Nate
    December 7, 2006

    Sorry…that should read Alexander Nevsky! BTW here is an article on that study:

    http://www.webmd.com/content/article/124/115702.htm

  9. #9 foofoo
    December 7, 2006

    I think heavy metal, depending on what it is and the chords used, may make you feel aggressive and mean but not so much happy. Try listening to a few Darkthrone albums– very fast-tempo stuff– and then tell me that you feel bright-eyed and bushy tailed.

    I used to like metal but I don’t really listen to it anymore, precisely for that reason. Now I usually listen to jumpstyle or hardstyle or trance techno, which is fast as well as ridiculously uplifting in chord structure.

  10. #10 John Evans
    December 7, 2006

    So would a SPEED READING course improve mood by making you think faster as you read faster. Easy dissertation topic here.

  11. #11 Kyle Varner
    December 7, 2006

    I have a theory as to why thinking quickly could improve a person’s moode. This is just a theory. I’m not a neurologist (yet!) but I find the subject fascinating.

    One of the main neurotransmitters that is used in neuron to neuron communication is Seratonin, aka the “happy chemical” (Ok, I coined that phrase).

    If you’re reading faster, your neurons are firing more and more, releasing more and more serotonin as the neurons chat with each other. The serotonin is eventually reabsorbed, but until then it hangs out in the brain making you happy.

    That is my theory.

  12. #12 wintersweet
    December 7, 2006

    Fast music helps me write my papers faster, and I suppose it could be “less despair” as well as just “fast background tempo.”

    I’m in TESOL and I wonder whether the slowness of trying to read in a second language might also have this depressing effect. If so, it would explain the deep aversion that many students have to reading, even when the material is light and they are interested in it, and even when they know it’s one of the best ways to enhance vocabulary and syntax skills. I’d really like to see some studies along those lines.

  13. #13 wenchacha
    December 8, 2006

    So, what happens if you speed-read something depressing like The Handmaid’s Tale?

  14. #14 c
    December 8, 2006

    WHAT IS JUMPSTYLE AND HARDSTYLE MUSIC GIVE ME SOME GROUPS NAMES I AM INTERRESSTED IN HEARING…INTERRESTING CONCEPT THESE WHOLE THINK FAST THING.
    WHAT ABOUT YOUR ABILITY TO ASEMULATE THE INFO AT THAT SPEED.?

  15. #15 Max
    December 8, 2006

    Makes sense. My poor wife suffers from major depression and always says she feels much better with fast-paced music. Slow music makes her much more depressed. Lately I’ve too have been suffering from major depression (long story) and NOW have found the exact same effect in fast and slow music to my depression. Previously I found slower music refreshing and relaxing. I’m thinking that fast music correlates to fast thinking.

  16. #16 anomalous4
    December 8, 2006

    Another depression sufferer (for at least 45 of my 50+ years) weighs in:

    Music is an essential part of my environment, and the kind of music I listen to depends strongly on what I happen to be doing at the time.

    Writing, studying, designing, and other “brain work”: Baroque all the way, Bach in particular. (Precision, steady rhythm, not too fast or too slow, relatively “emotion-free.” Everything my cerebrum needs in order to keep focused.) Renaissance.

    Driving, housecleaning, and physical work: Classic rock. (Energy, enough variety to keep me from getting bored, and I wonder if the familiarity somehow lets me tap into a time when my depression wasn’t nearly so bad and I had some of that “youthful energy.”)

    Kicking back late at night: Acoustic New Age. It has to be acoustic; the “square-waviness” of the electronic stuff makes me irritable.

    Any time, anywhere: Classical (except for most opera; I don’t like the kind of voices it uses).

    OK in small doses, depending on the circumstances: Real jazz (Especially live. Forget most “smooth” jazz; it really ought to be called urban soft-pop). Black Gospel (Reminds me of the little church across the street from my grandparents’ house when I was a little kid). World music.

    Never, ever: “Modern” rock, punk, garage band, etc. Cookie-cutter pop. Anything with a drum track under it (it might as well be pounding on my head). Heavy bass (guaranteed to put my head straight into the dumper in nothing flat. Where I used to live, I wouldn’t even walk into the local KMart because its HVAC system put out a loud sub-bass rumble that would nearly make me physically ill. Even a minute sitting at a red light next to a car with a huge sound system and big subwoofers can do a number on me). Rap. Hip-hop. Techno. Anything else that’s synth-heavy. C&W (reminds me too much of red-state politics, and the “twangy” edge makes me irritable). Easy listening (reminds me of going to the dentist when I was a kid). In general, anything with an “edge” on it or a too-fast tempo. Contemporary Christian (bad music, worse theology). 99% of the Christmas music that’s unavoidable in public places this time of year (Cheesy, cheesy, CHEESY! Why is it that anything resembling good taste flies straight out the window during the holidays? and why do they have to start playing it in the middle of November?).

    Greatest all-time high: Singing in a top-notch choir (which I did professionally for several years).

    Different strokes for different folks, I suppose (she said, while her favorite 24/7 Baroque audio stream played in the background).

  17. #17 Richard Wade
    December 8, 2006

    I hope you’re right about this. Anything that can help with mood disorders is welcome, especially non-chemical aids.
    The problem I see is how to take the specific task of reading faster or slower and apply it to faster thinking. I can conciously choose to read faster or slower, but when I’m just thinking, my thoughts are swirling, fuzzy mixtures of words, pictures and feelings. I don’t know how to manipulate the pace. Thinking the thought, “I’m going to think faster now,” just makes me self-conscious about my thoughts, and is a distraction. It only adds another layer and slows it all down. “Now what was it I was trying to think faster about? Oh, yeah.” I just can’t do it. Can anybody here do it?
    I’m somewhat skeptical about using the bipolar or manic disorders as evidence. It seems to me that the racing thoughts and the elated mood are both caused by the chemical-based brain disorder, not the thought speed causing the mood. Was there any work done trying to sort that out?

  18. #18 tes
    December 8, 2006

    I also have depression, have done for some years now, and I have to say this sounds a bit silly to me. I often have racing thought, especially in the morning. It is always a very stressfull experience and leaves me feeling totally out of control. I end up desperately trying to slow my thoughts down so that I can get ‘comfortable in myself’, so to speak. Any positive experience of elation associated with this phenomenon presumably is quite temporary and could possibly undermine mood and thought stabilization over the long term. Of course, my opinion can only be a reflection of my own, subjective understanding; I am certainly not trained to comment on such matters. It’s very interesting to see how others commentors have such an opposing reaction to my own, and I certainly wish them the best of luck and all happiness. I guess different stroks for different bumed out folks! Thanks for the reading.

  19. #19 Steve White
    December 8, 2006

    Of course, very few things have a correllation of 1, right? Some people aren’t going to experience this, no matter how fast they try and think.

    I find it amusing that my grandmother always used to tell me to listen to up-tempo, cheerful music if I was feeling down. Looks like she wasn’t so silly! :D

  20. #20 Dirk Stevenson
    December 8, 2006

    Is this why modafinil seems to help so many people with depression? On the drug, they are more awake, and therefore less likely to get down?

  21. #21 ChuckO
    December 9, 2006

    I must confess to a certain amount of skepticism about this study. In the first place, how did they measure the speed of reading? Secondly, if you can induce someone to read faster, they first must increase their level of alertness. It takes more work to read faster, and you have to be more alert, because there’s more of a likelihood that you’ll miss something when reading fast.

    That leads to the question of whether or not it’s the faster reading that produces the mood elevation. Perhaps there’s a bootstrap effect going on, and it’s the heightened state of awareness required to reading faster that leads to the reports of a better mood. We see something of this sort happening in everyday life. People who put themselves in dangerous situations, like mountain climbing, etc., often talk about being scared but reporting that they never felt so alive in their lives. In other words, the heightened state of awareness caused by the dangerous situation also produces a positive emotional rush. Something of that sort, though of lesser intensity, of course, could be going on.

    Finally, how long does this effect persist? I’m willing to bet that it is very transitory and, if applied on a consistent basis, I’ll wager that the effect diminishes. I also don’t see how one would get a good measure of mood. Asking someone how they feel seems incredibly unreliable. For example, if you ask someone how they feel, then ask again thirty minutes later, that second report would seem to be subject to too many factors to make it reliable for the simple reason that people being asked are going to think about what they should answer in the light of what they answered earlier. I don’t know exactly what kind of bias that would introduce, but it could be significant.

  22. #22 T.J. Crowder
    December 10, 2006

    Have they considered that this may be an adrenaline or other hormonal effect? If you’re racing to catch up with the words flying past on the screen, I expect it induces a mild level of exhilaration — which mildly raises your adrenaline levels and those of a couple of dozen other fight-or-flight hormones. These can lift mood in small doses (large doses can induce anxiety and nervousness). Also, if you’re succeeding in keeping up with the words, there’s a feeling of having done something well, which seems (to me) to elevate mood.

  23. #23 Sangail
    December 10, 2006

    I am working on surviving this overwhelming condition of depression/anxiety/compulsiveness. These conditions have been with me since I had cognitive thought. I never knew that my being was consumed by these invasive powers. Becoming aware of these intruders has been scarry. I have always been extremely fast in thinking, reading and speaking. Parents and teachers constantly instructed me to slow down to a normal pace. I am now medicating and consueling and it is extremly difficult to do so. I see some progress, but I am also aware of breakthrough depression threatening. It is difficult to follow through on any new practice that is being discoverd. Thank you for trying do discover new lifelines for those overwhelmed by these oppressive manipulaters. Bless us all.

  24. #24 gorgio
    December 10, 2006

    This article just seems right to me based on my experience and self-observations. I know when I get lazy and don’t bother really trying, which I’m apt to do quite frequently unfortunately, I fall into a funk. I think it has to do with my mind moving at a slower pace than usual. It makes me feel stupid and powerless compared to others.

    The problem with me is motivation. Sometimes, I just can’t find a good reason to apply myself. I think long-term solutions to depression have to create a frame of mind where applying yourself becomes a habit. Reading fast increases your mood but you’ll inevitably fall back down unless you have some core beliefs about the world and yourself that make it a habit to continually apply yourself.

  25. #25 Determinist
    December 11, 2006

    I think this is purely an example of replaying an anchor. When you’re having fun, when life is exciting, you probably are thinking faster, your heart is beating more quickly etc…

    It makes sense that triggering some of those will trick your brain into playing similar feelings back. These neurons are going to close to others that have triggered previously at the same time.

    In other words, it seems to make sense to me and I can see a possible mechanism. Along with this, you should be able to improve mood in a bunch of different ways – say doing something that you find fun to do.

  26. #26 js
    December 11, 2006

    I think mental exercises in general may help with depression.

  27. #27 Armando Esteban
    December 13, 2006

    Cool!! Gives me a lot to think about…

    Never heard before of anything like this….

  28. #28 Joel Bass
    December 14, 2006

    Could this be why people find it so exciting (and uplifting) to play video games that gradually speed up over time? Even though it eventually causes your video-game self to “die,” you often start playing again immediately.

    Of course, adrenalyn is probably also a big factor…

  29. #29 Chris
    December 15, 2006

    I know someone once (Styron?) said that the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. If so, there’s probably some circular feedback mechanism such that increased vitality and increased happiness boost one another.

    Dave wrote “Perhaps the effort of reading quickly simply distracts readers from negative thoughts” which is also quite probably since depression according to recent research tends to correlate with rumination. Doing things faster leaves you less time for that.

  30. #30 Don Bernau
    December 15, 2006

    GOOD ONE: It’s been my experience that when you speed up, yes, you may feel better, although the good feelings may be short lived. When going fast or slow, I’ve found it is important to be conscious in both these modes. If you loose control, taking off on an adrenaline high, this would not be good. It could be like any other addiction, you will crave the high of adrenaline. I think being in the present is the key wether your stepping up the pace or slowing down. Modulating your speed and staying conscious of that.

  31. #31 Michelle J.
    May 4, 2007

    I think it is also interesting to consider that exercise is helpful in combating depression. It seems that a common factor between thinking faster and exercise (or moving faster)is that both are increasing a person’s over all level of activity. Some of the major symptoms involved in depression are low motivation and low energy and sometimes sleeping too much (probably unproductive sleep). So really it would be like retraining one’s self to have more energy in general. Another interesting fact is that exercise often makes us have more energy in the long run (despite being tired initially) and it also allows us to sleep more productivly. I’ve also read research that suggests that athletes tend to have higher confidence levels. I think it may have to do with something related to body chemestry and amount of muscle mass vs fat (you may have heard the opposite-that stress hormones slow metabolism and encourage fat). Anyway, this is all better said than done, as the last thing a depressed person wants to do is exercise etc. (people usually find it easier to engage in/think about things that are compatable with their mood states). Also, this doesn’t address the thinking styles etc that go along with the depression. Anyway, something to think about.
    PS- someone posted about having problems with anxiety, depression and compulsiveness and difficulty slowing their thinkg -could this be ADHD?

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