Mood and Cognition

One of the interesting subplots of this new research on the intellectual benefits of sadness - it seems to bolster our attention and make us more analytical - is that it helps illuminate the intertwined relationship of mood and cognition. For decades, we saw the mind as an information processing machine; the brain was just a bloody computer with lipid bi-layer microchips. The problem with this metaphor is that machines don't have feelings, which led us to overlook the role of feelings in shaping how we think.

Here's an experiment I described in the depression article:

Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days -- he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi's "Requiem" -- and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the "low mood" condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.

Of course, this doesn't mean people in sunny climates always think worse, or that sadness is always the ideal mental state. While negative moods might promote focused attention and rigorous analysis, there's good evidence that happiness promotes a more freewheeling kind of information processing, which leads to more creative insights. Consider the following problem: I'm going to give you three different words, and you have to come with a single word that can form a compound word or phrase with all three. The three words are: AGE, MILE and SAND.

What's the answer? Look here.* If you solved this problem, the answer probably arrived in a flash of insight, popping abruptly into consciousness. According to Mark Jung Beeman and John Kounios, two scientists who have studied the neuroscience of aha moments, the brain is more likely to solve insights when the mind is relaxed, happy and perhaps a little distracted. (They've found, for instance, that subjects in a positive mood solve approximately 20 percent more insight problems than control subjects.) I wrote about their research in the New Yorker in 2008.

Why does happiness and relaxation make us better at solving remote associate problems? Beeman and Kounios describe the insight process as a delicate mental balancing act. (They've watched hundreds of undergraduates solve these word problems in fMRI machines and while wearing EEG headgear.) At first, the brain needs to control itself, which is why areas involved with executive control, like the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate, are activated. The scare resource of attention is lavished on a single problem. But then, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote associations in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight.

And that's why relaxation and happiness are so helpful: these moods make us more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inwards, so that we become better able to eavesdrop on the quiet yet innovative thoughts we often overlook. (That's why so many of my best ideas often come during warm showers.) In contrast, when people are diligently focused (and perhaps a little melancholy), their attention tends to be directed outwards, towards the details of the problem they're trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting those unlikely connections that lead to insights and epiphanies. (William James referred to insights as emanating from the peripheral "fringe" of consciousness, which is why they're so easy to ignore when we're staring straight ahead.)

The moral is that emotions influence how we process and pay attention to information, and that different kinds of cognitive tasks benefit from different moods. When we're editing our prose, or playing chess, or working through a math problem, we probably benefit from a little melancholy, since that makes us more attentive to details and mistakes. In contrast, when we're trying to come up with an idea for a novel, or have a hit a dead end with our analytical approach to a problem, then maybe we should take a warm shower and relax. The answer is more likely to arrive when we stop thinking about our problem. (It should also be noted, of course, that the same mental states can be induced with drugs, which is why so many artists experiment with benzedrine, marijuana, etc. They self-medicate to achieve the ideal mental state.)

If you're interested in thinking more about the tangled relationship of mood, cognition and creativity, I'd definitely recommend The Midnight Disease, by Alice Flaherty. It's a fascinating glimpse into the terrors of manic depression, and how an awful, awful mental illness can lead to a surfeit of creative production.

Update: I've received a few emails asking how this research on creative insights squares with the correlation between unipolar/bipolar depression and artistic success, at least as documented by Redfield Jamison and Andreassen. My own hunch is that, while we indulge in romantic myths about poems being generated during daydreams and long walks (see, for instance, Coleridge and Kubla Kahn), the reality of artistic production is far less leisurely. Good art is a relentless grind, requiring an inexhaustible attention to details and mistakes. Perhaps this is why a depressive mindset can be so helpful, and why so many successfful artists suffered from manic depression, in which periods of euphoric free-association are offset by prolonged and horrific states of anguish. But that's all utter speculation.

*Stone: milestone, sandstone, Stone Age.

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Interesting. But could you supply some references that the right hemisphere is indeed responsible for "more remote associations"?

By Gerontius (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

This is fascinating. Currently going through editing for my own novel, perhaps I should try focusing on some melancholic thoughts and see if it provides results :-) Worth the experiment I think.

I have sent you an email could you please ... please read it.

Don't let the facts get in the way of your promotion of the thesis that depression aids creativity.

In bi-polar disorder, it is the manic phase of the cycle, not the depression phase, that leads to creativity and "inexhaustible attention to details". When you are manic (up to a point), concentration is enhanced, energy is high, sleep requirements are minimal, work output is prolific, imagination is expanded- in short, you feel on top of the world. In the depression phase of the cycle you descend into depression as deep as your manic high. When depressed, you function barely, if at all.

This is fundamental stuff and I'm surprised you don't know and/or face up to it. I know it first hand because I am bi-polar. Every manic-depressive wishes they could maintain a slightly manic state without spiraling out of control, or having to face the depression that will inevitably follow.

By Myron Simmons (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

Myron, I actually have a very different experience than you. I'm also bipolar, but I find the manic phase unbearable. I am more productive AFTER the manic phase, when I can get back to work and work through my ideas. This speculation makes perfect sense to me.

Manic-depressives unite! Fortunately I no longer have it (yes, it can often go away later in life), but I equate the great but useless creativity of mania with my creativity in general. For example, when I'd get manic I'd look out the window and think the squirrels were monkeys, or when I drove in my car that the leaves blowing on the ground were mice. Naturally I thought the sun was giving me personal messages and the like. Who could ever come up with this stuff, the stuff of dreams, but the manic brain? Somehow it spills over into that part of the brain that's the center for ideas and creativity. A friend of mine said, There goes Ruth again with her preposterous ideas.

I guess it makes sense, but on a broader more chronic scale, intellectuals tend to be a little sadder and more cynical, and it seems to be attributed to their over-analytical stance on even small things in life. So cognition, focus and mental analysis could affect mood on a slower scale. What say?

We manics owe our friend Jonah a loud "hooah" for sparking this sidebar discussion.It shows once again that mood disorders can't be put into tidy boxes... to each his own. My squirrels aren't monkeys, they are flying rats.

I still say that depression and rumination don't contribute to creativity and problem solving. But, that's just been my experience.

By Myron Simmons (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

This is a wonderful discussion. I am not manic/depressive, but two of my best friends are. And from what they tell me, both of these observations are correct.

But for me - the article highlights my need to meditate. To give me that quiet boost of happiness and relaxed clarity. The "sad" part,I've mastered quite well, and the really happy excited part - I do that pretty good too. But the relaxed - letting it all flow part - is much more subtle, and I have to practice to do it well. Hence - meditation.

Hi, I'm writing from East Africa. Do you think these findings - if/when verified - would be universally true? How does culture influence the neuroscience of depression, and mental illness in general? We Africans sometimes don't recognize our illnesses and symptoms in the diagnosis of the Western world. I hope you'll look into this one day. Congrats for your awesome work. I'm a new subscriber to your blog, and already addicted to it.

On Forgas' study: Why did he add the "extra" stimuli to the experimental situation? Was it because he could not get enough of a difference between the two groups using only the weather cues? Did he control for the effect of the music alone, to make sure that Verdi's Requiem does not in and of itself exert an influence on one's ability to remember, or that Gilbert and Sullivan would have the opposite effect? As far as I'm concerned, not being a G and S fan, I'd want to get out of that store as quickly as possible with only my necessary purchases if such music were playing! Whether or not it were sunny outside! :)

I did research in academia and industry for many years, and it's truly amazing how many scientists do not control for obvious confounding factors when setting up their experiments, or who draw unsubstantiated conclusions from mere correlations. And sometimes those correlations were "statistically significant" but still weak. What's that old saw from statistics concerning the curve of many years duration showing a high degree of correlation between the price of port and the salaries of Presbyterian ministers (or something along those lines ... the drink and the denomination could be different!) Is there a real relationship between those two facts? In this case, there is a connection, that being inflation, or the tendency of prices of many things to rise along with wages, so it's pretty obvious why the correlation exists. But in "real" science, it is by no means always that obvious, and thus any correlations really need to be strong, controls need to be mercilessly aimed at disproving what one wants to believe (in the true spirit of the scientific method) and conclusions based only on correlations must be gingerly drawn... just my 2 cents!

I don't think that Jonah's hypothesis is speaking about chronic clinical depression. To say that depression is purposeful for focusing the sufferer's attention on solving the problem behind their sadness assumes that there is a causal factor. Some people, like myself, struggle with depression that comes on for no reason; that runs in families and is caused by a chemical imbalance.
I think this theory speaks loudest to the fact that depression is over-diagnosed, over-medicated, and used to name too broad a spectrum of feelings and mood disorders.

Hye Jonah, I have just listened to your interview on Q up here in Canada. It was a great insight into the positives on letting people go thru the pain of depression. We are so focused on feeling good - BTW: that is supposed to make us feel like 'good people' such fiction!

Anyway, I am a person who has spent years going thru the highs and lows of depression after a hard marriage. I have chosen not to use meds as I found that feeling better with all this crap going on was not any better than feeling lousy all over, mentally, physically, and emotionally all at the same time. There is truth in congruency. A question I have is, could it help clinical depression to let the person just work thru it and come out with answers to the issues they are dealing with? It would not be covered up with medication or treated like an incurable disease, keeping them in that state for all their lives.

It has taken me a lot of years to come to the point of realizing that I have left some things behind and am now living in the present of my daily life, that there is nothing wrong with me because I have the same ups & downs as other average people do.

Thanks for your words this morning, I am in complete agreement with your theory. If you are looking for a guinea pig, I would be availabe.

Meg Renicker

By Meg Renicker (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

Well, they probably liked the sunny day music and listened to it and didn't like the requiem and paid more attention to the surroundings in boredom.

By wildthing (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

For another viewpoint on the relationship between mood, cognition and creativity see Barbara Fredrickson's Broaden and Build model and research that has emanated from that.

I heard you being interviewed on Q on the radio today. Great interview. I missed some of it so will download the podcast. From what I heard, however, you didn't discuss those who are dysthymic (or suffer from constant low grade depression). I was wondering what biological use this depression would serve and I started to wonder if it was correlated with high intelligence. I thought that because much of depression seems to be based on ruminating thoughts, that the most intelligent among us would easily fall into this trap. I did a little research and found that one researcher believes that the two are highly correlated…. The author posits that "Some of the characteristics of high intelligence are an above-average imagination, superior verbal ability, and advanced analytical skills. This is the perfect recipe for cooking-up very elaborate, and very negative, inner dialogues. And thatâs exactly what happens. This helps explain the well-known phenomenon of âtormented geniusesâ. Simply, their submission response is often out-of-control. And, despite their genius, they donât know how to stop it."

I feel that while shorter depressions can be somewhat useful as you said in your article, these life long states are the biggest waste of natural resources that we have. Since anti depressants have been shown to not be effective at easing this type of depression, I was wondering if you have heard of any treatments that are useful.

By LifeCaptain (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

To learn that sadness and even depression are "useful" is quite refreshing. Yet, I am reminded of Iain McGilchrist's conclusion that in the world generated by brains with left-hemisphere predominance the only value left is utilitarian value. And such an outlook on sadness is a bit sad - at least to those whose brains are not leaning so far to the left...

By Ivelin Sardamov (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

The late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick looked at some of these ideas regarding the benefits of depression on the writing process, writing as a form of thinking an performativity, in her book Touching Feeling, and the depressions suffered by Henry James and how they shaped the decisions he made in reviewing ('reissuing') his collected volumes of work. Have blogged about it as this, and the intersection of other influences on the writing process are my own research and personal interests: Writing Emotion

I suffer from depression, currently in a fragile remission, and
, sparked by this excellent post, wonder if you've found any
articles that examine the possibility of creativity as a catalyst
for improved mood.

I work with computers for my day job, and sometimes as a hobby too
(With no prior knowlege I taught myself Java, then JavaME so I
could write the programs I wanted to use on my Blackberry).
However, whenever my mood dips, as it inevitably does during
the latter phase of my cycle, I know that indulging another one
of my hobbies, photography, is almost guaranteed to boost my

Is it possible that tacking creative pursuits activates some
neuroanatomical structure responsible for improved mood?

Knowledge about the relationship between melancholy and intellectual capacity goes way back in history, I'm talking about the middleages and further 'back', and has undergone many interpretations. To a start take a crawl on wikipedia on melancholia, and you will see that these new lab findings have a deep ressonance in and cannot be understood without this human history.

Jonah continues to use the terms sadness and depression interchangeably, which again leads me to believe he doesn't understand what he's talking about. In my experience, sadness can be a sobering and productive emotion. That's "emotion" not "mood". Depression is almost never productive. It has exactly the opposite effect.

I think that a lot of people are conflating two types of "depression." One type has a relative lack of emotion, the other has "sinister" emotions. Unfortunately, it seems that the psychiatric community still doesn't quite get this and continues to classify both as a "Major Depressive Disorder." Come on guys, get with it. They are not the same disorder. They may appear in the same patient, they may overlap, they may seem the same to you, but they are NOT the same "disorder."

Being somewhat absent of emotion or "mood", *might* make it easier to think clearly. Having a simple single emotion, be it happy or sad, may also make it easier to think clearly. Having multiple emotions all competing at once, or having one emotion turned up to 11, does NOT make it easier to think clearly (flying squirrels? monkeys?). The DSM-V is coming and they still don't seem to understand, or agree on, how to classify "depression", and thus are confused about how to treat it.

How long until another well-intentioned but misinformed MD prescribes anti-depressants and sends yet another bipolar into outer-space because they appeared "depressed." God help us all. Fix the DSM; "sinister" mania is NOT depression.

By FixTheDSM (not verified) on 16 Feb 2011 #permalink


I think my use of "sinister" is misleading, to the extent that the reader might think I felt the patient was "sinister." I used "sinister" to connote that the mood was foul, not that the person experiencing the mood was evil. Perhaps, "dysphoric" was a more appropriate choice, but unfortunately is used in reference to "mixed-states" and thus would be confusing. Anybody have a good word for bipolar depression?

By FixTheDSM (not verified) on 16 Feb 2011 #permalink

I do not suffer with bipolar symptoms (or so I think!), however I have been through periods of powerful, spontaneous sadness and have had the good fortune of being able to pull myself out of them.... and the act of struggling out of a negative and dark phase is what turns into incredible creativity for me. The sad time shows me things, then when I am ready to step out of it, my brain is energised with new ideas and forward thinking. It's exciting, but in a calm and subtle way, when it happens. I have learned that that I can just be sad, let that part of me be and still all the while start to carve and create - there's no need for me to feel ashamed of my sadness. It's a beautiful part of me that constantly teaches me what my happiness looks and feels like..