Imagine this:

You’re shown a number of words one after another: “lettuce, tomato, green, head, vegetable, cabbage, carrot, food, leaf, salad, hamburger.” Then, you’re shown a different set of words: “thread, needle, shot, nurse, drugs, alcohol, wine, cheese, mouse, cat, dog, bone.” Notice any difference between the two chains of words—or even how you feel?

These two sets of words were part of a groundbreaking Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School study, published in 2011, that is today informing new and innovative ways to address prevalent mood disorders like anxiety and depression. This type of simple word association—and other cognitive activities that rebuild specific neural pathways—are leading to exciting, new tools to address the mental health epidemic in this country and around the world.

I led the Harvard research team that looked at the effects of a “stagnant” word set (like the first list above, where all the words remain within the same, narrow topic without expanding further) as compared with a “progressive” list (like the second, where the words are associatively related to each other and keep expanding broadly). The results were remarkable: The participants exposed to the more progressive word sets showed significantly improved mood compared with the participants who read the more stagnant sets of words.

Role of Facilitating Thought Progression

These findings built on previous research demonstrating a link between mood and what’s often referred to as “processing scope,” or how mood impacts scope of thinking. We, however, were able to show that this relationship is bidirectional: scope of thinking can also influence mood. In other words, getting people to think more broadly can help reduce depression and anxiety, and using progressive word associations is an effective way to help.

Based on these findings—along with subsequent studies—I’ve worked with a team, originally at Harvard Medical School and now at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, to develop an approach called Facilitating Thought Progression (FTP). FTP is based on the fact that mental health disorders are accompanied by thought disorders such as rumination, a cyclical and repetitive pattern of rigid thinking. FTP disrupts and breaks these patterns, and by gradually reconstructing neural networks that have been lost over years of ruminative thinking, helps to improve and maintain mental health.

Opportunities in Gaming

Word association is not the only cognitive activity that can help promote more expansive thinking. There’s evidence, for instance, that when you are encouraged to see the bigger picture, quite literally, your mood improves. In one exercise we studied, people were shown a large letter that was made up of different, much smaller letters. Getting people to focus on the larger letter rather than the smaller ones is a type of what we call “globalization,” which broadens thinking.

Activities like these are increasingly available outside of labs and research studies, and one exciting channel is mobile apps or games. For better or worse, most of us have our phones with us most of our waking hours, and we use them for nearly everything. As a result, many apps—some quite promising—have been designed to help reduce stress, increase mindfulness, heighten happiness, and much else.

Promising Results

As a psychology and neuroscience professor, it’s not every day that I’m able to apply decades of research to help develop accessible and practical applications. It’s thrilling and immensely rewarding for me to see science translate into better mental health.

Based on findings from extensive clinical trials we just completed at Massachusetts General Hospital, a mere fifteen-minute-a-day of mobile, FTP-based gaming activities could improve the mental health and symptoms of people with diagnosed depression. We’re also looking into how long these effects last. In the coming weeks, we’ll have complete analyses from this rigorously controlled study, which we plan to share broadly. My colleagues and I are excited that what we have learned now could inform a new generation of mobile games for mental health.

In the meantime, consider this exciting (and progressive) sequence: research studies, FTP, phones, gaming, improved mental health for all!

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