Let us see how they describe thought speed and variability and what their hypothesis is:
1. The principle of thought speed. Fast thinking, which involves many thoughts per unit time, generally produces positive affect. Slow thinking, which involves few thoughts per unit time, generally produces less positive affect. At the extremes of thought speed, racing thoughts can elicit feelings of mania, and sluggish thoughts can elicit feelings of depression.
2. The principle of thought variability. Varied thinking generally produces positive affect, whereas repetitive thinking generally produces negative affect. This principle is derived in part from the speed principle: when thoughts are repetitive, thought speed (thoughts per unit time) diminishes. At its extremes, repetitive thinking can elicit feelings of depression (or anxiety), and varied thinking can elicit feelings of mania (or reverie).
Let me clarify at the outset that they are aware of the effects of though speed on variability and vice versa; as well as the effects of mood on felt energy and vice versa; thus they know that one can confound the other. Another angle they consider is the relationship between thought speed/variability i.e the form of thought and the contents of thought (whether having emotional salience or neutral) and investigated whether the effects of speed and variability were confounded with though content; they found negative evidence for this inetrcationist view.
Let me also clarify that I differ slightly (based on my interpreation of their data) from their original hypothesis, in the sense that I believe that their data shows that speed affects felt energy and variability affects affect and that the effects of speed on mood may be mediated by the effect of speed on felt energy and similarly the effect of variability on felt energy may be mediated by its effects on mood.
Thus my claim is that:
- Thought speed leads to more felt energy. Extremes of ‘racing thoughts’ leads to the manic feeling of being very energetic (when accompanied with positive mood, this may give rise to feelings of grandiosity- I have the energy to achieve anything), while also may lead to anxiety states (when accompanied with negative affect) in which one cannot really suppress a negative chain of thoughts – one following the other in fast succession, regarding the object of ones anxiety. The counterpart to this the state where thoughts come slowly (writer’s block etc) and when accompanied with negative affect, this can easily be viewed as depression.
- Thought variability leads to more positive affect: Extremes of ‘tangential thoughts’ leads to the manic feeling of being in a good mood (when accompanied with high energy , this manifest as feelings of euphoria); while the same tangential thoughts when accompanied by low felt energy may actually be felt as serenity/ calmness/ reverie. The counterpart to this is the state of thoughts that are stuck in a rut – when accompanied with low energy this leads to feelings of depression and sadness.
Thus, to put simply : there are two dimensions one needs to take care of – mood (thought variability) x energy (thought speed) and high and low extremes on these dimensions are all opposites of their counterpart.
Before we move on, I’ll let the authors present their other two claims too:
3. The combination principle. Fast, varied thinking prompts elation; slow, repetitive thinking prompts dejection. When speed and variability oppose each other, such that one is low and the other high, individuals’ affective experience will depend on factors including which one of the two factors is more extreme. The psychological state elicited by such combinations can vary apart from its valence, as shown in Figure 1. For example, repetitive thinking can elicit feelings of anxiety rather than depression if that repetitive thinking is rapid. Notably, anxious states generally are more energetic than depressive states. Moreover, just as fast-moving physical objects possess more energy than do identical slower objects, fast thinking involves more energy (e.g., greater wakefulness, arousal, and feelings of energy) than does slow thinking.
4. The content independence principle. Effects of thought speed and variability are independent of the specific nature of thought content. Powerful affective states such as depression and anxiety have been traced to irrational and dysfunctional cognitions (e.g., Beck, 1976). According to the independence principle, effects of mental motion on mood do not require any particular type of thought content.
They review a number of factors and studies that all point to a causal link between thought speed and energy and between thought variability and mood. More importantly they show the independent effects of though speed and variability from the effects of thought content on mood. I’ll not go into the details of the studies and experiments they performed, as their article is available freely online and one can read for oneself (it makes for excellent reading); suffice it to say that I believe they are on the right track and have evidence to back their claims.
What are the implications of this:
The speed and repetition of thoughts, we suggest, could be manipulated in order to alter and alleviate some of the mood and energy symptoms of mental disorders. The slow and repetitive aspects of depressive thinking, for example, seem to contribute to the disorder’s affective symptoms (e.g., Ianzito et al., 1974; Judd et al., 1994; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991; Philipp et al., 1991; Segerstrom et al., 2000). Thus, techniques that are effective in speeding cognition and in breaking the cycle of repetitive thought may be useful in improving the mood and energy levels of depressed patients. The potential of this sort of treatment is suggested by Pronin and Wegner’s (2006) study, in which speeding participants’ cognitions led to improved mood and energy, even when those cognitions were negative, self-referential, and decidedly depressing. It also is suggested by Gortner et al.’s (2006) finding that an expressive writing manipulation that decreased rumination (even while inducing thoughts about an upsetting experience) rendered recurrent depression less likely.
There also is some evidence suggesting that speeding up even low-level cognition may improve mood in clinically depressed patients. In one experiment, Teasdale and Rezin (1978) instructed depressed participants to repeat aloud one of four letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, or D) presented in random order every 1, 2, or 4 s. They found that those participants required to repeat the letters at the fastest rate experienced the most reduction in depressed mood. Similar techniques could be tested for the treatment of other mental illnesses. For example, manipulations might be designed to decrease the mental motion of manic patients, perhaps by introducing repetitive and slow cognitive stimuli. Or, in the case of anxiety disorders, it would be worthwhile to test interventions aimed at inducing slow and varied thought (as opposed to the fast and repetitive thought characteristic of anxiety). The potential effectiveness of such interventions is supported by the fact that mindfulness meditation, which involves slow but varied thinking, can lessen anxiety, stress, and arousal.
hat tip: Ulterior Motives
Pronin, E., & Jacobs, E. (2008). Thought Speed, Mood, and the Experience of Mental Motion Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (6), 461-485 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00091.x
Pronin, E., & Wegner, D. (2006). Manic Thinking: Independent Effects of Thought Speed and Thought Content on Mood Psychological Science, 17 (9), 807-813 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01786.x