Can't stop obsessing? Scientists just found the root of our unwanted thoughts

We may be getting closer to sidestepping unproductive thought cycles

We may be getting closer to sidestepping unproductive thought cycles


Sure, it's a well-worn dictum of Buddhism, but it's well-worn for a reason: your mind really is a chattering monkey. Especially when worry, fear, anger or even love has taken hold of it. When that happens, no matter how much we'd like it to stop screeching and stealing focus from more healthy pursuits, like functioning normally, we're stuck with the brain monkey's messages. Example: "I still can't believe Barb told me I'm getting too old to have kids, I should have said…(insert clever comeback)". Then repeat. For hours, or days, depending how much you hate Barb. It's called rumination and we all do it, to some extent. Also, eff Barb.

At its worst, the phenomenon isn't just a laughable nuisance. It can be a debilitating nightmare for people managing PTSD, OCD, depression and schizophrenia where unwanted, intrusive thoughts commonly become persistent and relentless. Happily, scientists may be getting closer to ending that nightmare for sufferers and helping all of us get a handle on the harrowing hijack that is invasive thinking.

Professor Michael Anderson and his team at the University of Cambridge have identified a neurotransmitter (a messenger brain chemical) that helps us subdue unwanted thoughts. It's called GABA and it's most active in our brain's long-term memory center. That location, it seems, is something of a game changer. Anderson asserts that the bulk of past research has been focused on "improving functioning of the prefrontal cortex" - the region of the brain behind your forehead that controls planning and personality. Conversely, lobotomies once sought to sever that part of the brain as a "remedy" for various mental ills. "Our study," says Anderson, "suggests that if you could improve GABA activity within the hippocampus, this may help people to stop unwanted and intrusive thoughts." On top of being your life's history hub, the hippocampus is also tasked with your emotions. That intersection of memory and feeling is a tricky crossroad.    

Researchers of the study had subjects memorize unrelated word clusters: "ordeal/roach and moss/north" being one example. When participants were given a green signal they were meant to recall the random pairings. If they were instead given a red signal, they were told to not make the association. Monitored by way of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), which measures blood flow, and magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which gauges brain chemistry, the subjects with the highest concentrations of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA were found to be more proficient at shutting out unwanted memories and thoughts. In other words, they were better at letting go of the associations they'd been told to memorize. Side note: I may switch careers and commit my life to the study of GABA, if only to increase my own presumably feeble concentrations.    

Anderson, who says we're beginning to zero in on a crucial process that will allow us to better understand mental health, hopes the discovery of hippocampal GABA will eventually bolster treatment plans for disorders marked by a pathological inability to control or suppress problematic thinking patterns. Namely PTSD, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression. "Before, we could only say 'this part of the brain acts on that part', but now we can say which neurotransmitters are likely to be important," he explains. Rumination and excessive worry are symptomatic of a host of mental disorders and GABA could hold the key to understanding why some are chronically unable to budge their persistent intrusive thoughts.

Anderson is clear that thought-management is no small thing. When the capacity to mitigate and wrangle thought breaks down "it causes some of the most debilitating symptoms of psychiatric diseases - intrusive memories, images, hallucinations, ruminations, and pathological and persistent worries." But the find is hopeful for medical science at large. The ability to properly control our thoughts is something researchers say is "fundamental to wellbeing."

"What's exciting about this", he says, "is that now we're getting very specific." The narrowing of focus on a troubling tendency that ranges from mildly frustrating to categorically catastrophic could lead to some welcome relief for many struggling with a disorder. And ideally, shut Barb up - at least in our own heads so we can find a little nirvana.