The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Negative Emotions Diminished by Difficult Mental Challenges

Can thinking about being happy make you less happy?

Have you ever noticed when you are sad or angry that doing something mentally difficult — solving a puzzle or remembering a poem — tends to make you temporarily “forget” to be sad or angry? The moment you finish the difficult and engrossing task, the negative emotion often comes right back.

New research suggests that this phenomenon occurs because emotions are mentally taxing; they take up brain resources. When you focus your brain on something challenging, mental resources that were being previously devoted to producing and experiencing the negative emotion are now being pulled away to solve the puzzle or remember the poem. This is why you experience less of the emotion.

Here is a puzzle I posted recently on The Hidden Brain’s Facebook page, which is where all puzzles get their first airing. (Navigate over and click on the LIKE button if you want to be alerted about future puzzles — you’ll have to login to Facebook first.)

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People experience less sadness, fear and other negative emotions when they …
A) Try to remember the lines of a poem memorized many years before
B) Count backward from 1 to 100 in steps of 7
C) Focus intensely on the negative emotion
D) Multiply the numbers 14 and 23 in their heads

The correct answer(s): A, B, C and D

The hidden brain mechanism involved here is that different experiences/tasks often compete for the same brain resources, and one way to diminish the effects of a negative emotion is to use up some of the resources needed to produce/experience that emotion in some difficult mental task.

I based this puzzle on new research by Assaf Kron, Yaacov Schul, Asher Cohen and Ran R. Hassin who found that “the intensity of both negative and positive feelings diminished under a cognitive load.”

One of the interesting dimensions of the research is that it showed that concentrating on the negative emotion itself — as opposed to experiencing the emotion — also decreased its effects. Concentrating (ie. thinking about) an emotion takes up mental resources. I’ve personally found that when I hurt myself — stub a toe for example — focusing intensely on the pain (thinking about whether the sensation feels like burning, tingling or pressure etc) — reduces my experience of the pain. Probably the same phenomenon at work.

Take note that the same thing holds true for positive emotions as well. What this means is that if you are experiencing a particularly lovely emotion, don’t imagine you can experience the emotion with the same intensity while typing on your blackberry at the same time!

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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