Science Saturday: What are Automatic Thoughts?

We all have those sneaky thoughts that come unbidden when we make a mistake or are faced with a change. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t mentally beat themselves up over a perceived shortcoming. Often, it isn’t deserved. But when your automatic thoughts are that you deserve those thoughts, what do you do?

Types of Automatic Thoughts

First, some background. The Handbook of Social Psychology describes four types of automatic cognitive processes:

“Automaticity is granted if the perceiver lacks awareness of the process, does it with efficiency (i.e., with minimal use of cognitive resources), has no intention to do it, or cannot control it.”

Based on this definition, automatic thoughts include those about others, such as deeply held prejudices. It also includes the intrusive thoughts that characterize Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but I’ll be focusing more on those automatic thoughts that don’t necessarily play a direct role in psychopathology. For example, self-referential thoughts like “I’m going to fail this exam. I always fail.” are the types of thoughts I’m talking about here.

Negative Automatic Thoughts

The most well-known measure in this area is the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ), a 30-item instrument developed in 1980. The ATQ contains statements like “I am a failure”, and asks participants to rate each statement on a scale representing the frequency with which they experience that thought. It’s a cross-validated questionnaire that’s been shown in several studies to correlate with depression and separate depressed from non-depressed individuals.

When presented with a distressing stimulus, previously depressed participants and people who have never been depressed experienced stronger belief in negative automatic thoughts. The researchers propose that cognitive reactivity is related to relapse and recurrence of depression.

Cognitive reactivity refers to the triggering of negative thought patterns by small declines in mood. The ability to resist slipping into negative cognitions seems to have a protective effect; inpatient surveys taken at two time points show that decreases in negative automatic thoughts are strongly correlated with reduced suicidal ideation.

Positive Automatic Thoughts

The relationship between negative automatic thoughts and depression and anxiety is well documented. We can infer that the lack of negative automatic thoughts has beneficial effects on mental health, but this still isn’t quite the same as the presence of positive automatic thoughts. However, research does support the assumption that positive thinking is related to positive mood. A variation of the ATQ was developed to measure positive automatic thoughts. It’s called the ATQ-P, and higher scores on it are strongly associated with lower levels of depression. A healthy balance of positive and negative thoughts appears to be weighted toward more positive than negative- a ratio of 0.62 to 0.38, to be exact (according to one study).

Where Exactly Do Automatic Thoughts Come From?

Understanding the present state of the science of cognition would take me a lot longer and several textbooks’ worth of information, so I’m not claiming to have a solid grip on this. In fact, how exactly our thoughts come to be is conceptualized in my mind as electricity zapping through convoluted tangles of long, mushy neurons. The transformation of those electrical signals into language and images is completely beyond my comprehension and, in my imagination, involves the universal translator from Star Trek.

Parahippocampal gyrus

limbic system

As far as I can tell, there are a couple of areas of the brain that are linked to automatic thoughts. One is the parahippocampal gyrus, a part of the limbic system.

Here’s a study that investigated the relationship between depression and brain tissue volume in the limbic system. Not gonna lie, my eyes glazed over a little when I read this:

“The voxel-based morphometry results showed that the GMV of the right parahippocampal gyrus and fusiform gyrus and the WMV of the right superior temporal pole increased with the severity of depression.”

Let’s break that down. A voxel is a value assigned to a three-dimensional grid. Think “pixel” but with volume. Voxel-based morphometry is a technique for assessing differences in brain volume. Brain scans are registered to a standard, voxel-based template, then each voxel is “smoothed” by averaging it with the values of the surrounding voxels. Finally, the image volume of each scan is compared to the other scans’ volumes and the differences between voxels are evaluated statistically. Basically, it’s a way to quickly compare lots of structural brain scans using computers.

The study with the jargon-filled results found that increases in the volume of grey and white matter in certain regions of the limbic system are associated with increasing severity of depression, as measured with the ATQ. So, negative automatic thoughts are associated with depression, and depression is associated with higher volume in the emotional center of the brain. That doesn’t necessarily mean that negative automatic thoughts are directly related to grey and white matter volume. Or does it?

Statistical tests showed that the combination of automatic thoughts and grey matter volume in the parahippocampal gyrus predicted depression measured by the ATQ and the Self-Rating Depression Scale. The automatic thoughts mediate the relationship between volume and depression. They also seem to mediate the relationship between neuroticism and depression.

Medial Prefrontal Cortex

The medial prefrontal cortex is not part of the limbic system. It’s located at the very front of your brain and is associated with the processing of social information. Hyperactivity in this region has been linked to neuroticism and self-generated thought. The tendency to worry and impose self-generated beliefs onto a reality that doesn’t match those beliefs sounds a lot like the automatic thoughts in the studies above. But it’s not all bad; the same hyperactivity and self-generated thoughts are also associated with creativity.

Combatting Negative Automatic Thoughts

Hopefully, you haven’t read all of that and decided that the next time someone tells you to be more positive you’ll just say “the grey matter in my parahippocampal gyrus says ‘no can do.'”

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to result in reductions of automatic thoughts and dysfunctional attitudes associated with non-clinical depression. CBT makes use of behavioral experiments and automatic thought records. People perceive behavioral experiments to be more powerful than combatting automatic thoughts with logic alone, which could be because behavioral experiments function through emotion-based cognitive systems. Mindfulness has also been shown to reduce automatic thoughts, and it’s associated with increased life satisfaction.

I’m certainly not saying that the solution is just to “think positively”; then we’d be in a pot/kettle situation. There are, however, plenty of reasons to believe that we have the power to effect change in our own brains.

What helps you recognize negative automatic thoughts, and how do you practice self-compassion?

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