We've all been there before: You're busy working on something when all of a sudden you remember an upsetting event. Maybe it was a particularly nasty argument you had with your husband or the time your boss yelled at you in front of everyone. Now, no matter what you do, you can't stop reliving the emotions of that painful recollection. How do you stop thinking about it and get back to work? It turns out the secret to getting out of your funk is all about changing the way you remember your negative memories.
A recent study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex looked at how brain activity and memory changed when study participants were asked to focus on the contextual or emotional aspects of a specific negative emotional event. Thirty-three participants were asked to write down a distressing memory, which the researchers then brought up while participants were completing memory tasks.
Researchers asked participants to focus on either the emotional aspect of their memory or contextual details. When subjects focused on emotions — "how they felt, including the physical sensations" — their cognitive performance declined. "But when they were focusing on the non-emotional, contextual aspects, then their working memory performance was not impacted. They had better task performance and less negative effects when focusing on context than when focusing on emotion," researcher Alexandru Iordan said.
The fMRI scan recorded an increase in activity in the regions of the participants' brains that handle emotional processing when they were asked to focus on the emotions — not surprising, right? The scan also revealed that brain activity in the regions that deal with functions like reasoning and memory was decreased for participants in this same scenario. But when subjects were asked to focus on contextual details, activity in the brain regions that take care of emotion was reduced, while activity in the brain regions that deal with functions like attention increased.
"When regions in the brain that are involved in processing emotion are stimulated, it takes resources away from regions that are helping you stay focused on the task at hand," researcher Florin Dolcos said. "With this shift in focus from emotion to context, you're putting resources back into the regions that are processing the task."
So according to Dolcos and his team, when you find yourself unable to stop thinking about the same negative memory on loop, the secret is to stop focusing on the emotions of that memory and start focusing on the context. Then, your brain simply won't have the resources to dwell on the emotional aspect of your memory and it becomes easier to switch brain tracks and get back to work.