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  • Writer's pictureThe Hedonia Team

Can Depression Stifle Your Creativity? How Thinking Outside the Box Can Rewire Your Brain

The image of the tortured artist, drawing from the depths of her emotional pain to create magnificent creative works, is so recognizable that it’s almost become a cliche. We tend to think of the most creative people as being tortured with depression and angst, and mistakenly believe that “happy people don’t make art.”

While some creative people may struggle with mental health problems, research shows that in reality, the opposite is true. People with depression tend to be less creative, not more — especially in the way they think.

Here, we’ll discuss the link between creativity and depression, and how you can break out of the box of depression and think more creatively simply by playing a mobile game for 15

minutes a day.

The link between depression and creativity

Depression is a clinical mental health condition that causes people to have a chronically low mood. Other symptoms include fatigue and low energy, changes to appetite and sleep, and in extreme cases, thoughts of death and suicide. 

Increased creativity is not a symptom of depression, but these two things are often associated in popular lore. We have countless examples of creative geniuses who suffered from mood disorders, especially bipolar disorder. Vincent van Gogh was famously so afflicted that he cut his own ear off. Sylvia Plath died of suicide at the young age of 30.

Despite these popular examples, in terms of our thinking patterns, research shows that depression makes people think less creatively, not more. 

Studies have shown that depression causes us to think in ways that are narrow and inflexible — the opposite of what creativity inspires in us. If you live with depression, you probably understand this instinctively. Depression (and other mental health conditions like anxiety) cause rumination – in other words,  when our thoughts circle around a topic over and over again.

For example, you might have the thought: “I’ll never be successful. I’m a loser.” If you live with depression, it may be incredibly difficult to move on from this thought. Regardless of what you’ve accomplished in your life or all of the evidence that supports the fact that you are not a loser, you ruminate on this idea. Your brain, with depression, has a hard time expanding its thoughts and making new, creative connections.

On the other hand, people without depression typically have an easier time moving past these types of thoughts. They can think creatively and openly, forming new neural connections and coming up with innovative solutions to their problems.

A person without depression may think: “I am not a loser, but it’s interesting that I’m feeling that way about myself. It’s probably because I’ve been unemployed for a couple of months. But I’m trying my best to get a new job, and I know that something will come along. Hey, maybe I can talk to my old supervisor to see if they have any other opportunities for me. I could also start that online course to level up my skills.”

This shows creative thinking; this person is able to easily go from one idea or thought to another, and expand their frame of mind to come up with new solutions. They can see the bigger picture, and be creative in their thought associations.

A person who experiences depression lives with a brain that cannot do this as easily. They get stuck on the idea: “I am a loser. Otherwise I would have found a job by now. There’s nothing I can do. I will just be a failure forever. This is just who I am; I can’t change.” 

This person’s brain does not allow them to think creatively; they ruminate and become stuck. It’s difficult for them to use their imagination to come up with solutions.

Prof. Moshe Bar, Chief Scientific Officer at Hedonia, cognitive neuroscientist, and the former Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital puts it this way:

“Creativity relies on original thinking, but the excessive inhibition associated with depression constricts our thoughts, so rather than broadly associative thinking, depression results in narrow ruminations, circling the same topics repeatedly”.

How depression affects thinking patterns isn’t just observable in people’s behavior or their own reports of their thoughts. MRI studies have also been able to observe them. 

Prof. Bar’s lab has found that the part of the brain’s network that supports expansive thinking gets activated significantly less in people with depression. In addition, people who have constricted, non-creative thinking patterns experience a critical loss in neuronal volume in the regions of the brain important for mood and memory.

In other words, depression causes you to think less creatively — and thinking less creatively physically causes some areas of your brain to become smaller.

How to think more creatively when you have depression

Luckily, neuroplasticity is a proven fact — meaning that science has demonstrated that our brains are malleable. With repetition and practice, we can teach our brains to form new neural connections, which leads to new patterns of thinking and behaving.

Prof. Bar’s research has delved into ways in which we can train our brains to counteract the effects of depression and think more openly and creatively. His research has found that any activity that helps you to use your imagination, get out of a rigid way of thinking, and be more creative can be helpful.

This may be why other research has also found that the creative arts are beneficial for lifting depression. For example, studies have shown that expressive writing, painting, and other forms of art are beneficial for people who live with mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic symptoms.

Again: the rigid thinking patterns that come with depression can reduce the size of your brain. The idea is to counteract these effects by consistently and intentionally using your brain in ways that are opposite to the way depression operates.

According to Prof. Bar’s research, this means thinking in ways that are:

  • Broader (more expansive and associative)

  • Faster

  • Wider (more able to see the “big picture”)

By engaging in activities that force us to think in this way, our brains start to change. Research shows that these effects are applicable even when you’re not applying the new thinking patterns directly to depression. The subject of your thoughts isn’t important — it’s how you’re thinking that makes the difference.

Play depression away

Mood Bloom ™ is a mobile game that makes it easy to rewire your brain to think more creatively and counteract the narrow, rigid, and ruminative thinking patterns that depression causes. The app includes a set of therapeutic mini-games, each of which is designed to facilitate a new way of thinking.

For example, the Cloud therapeutic mini-game was specifically created to help you use your imagination. It invites you to think flexibly and come up with varied ideas without judgment. Research shows that by thinking creatively in this way, you can improve your mood. 

Most events we experience can be interpreted in many different ways. Our research team has found that by observing things in the external environment – like clouds – and training your mind to find more than one interpretation to them, we can influence how we interpret our internal experiences and emotions. By learning to think imaginatively in this way, we can interpret our life events in ways that are less rigid, include a more diverse range of information, and lead to multiple solutions.

Look at abstract pictures of clouds, and try to see shapes in them. Think creatively. Again, you don’t need to apply this imagination to depressed thoughts. The important thing is to train your brain to think wider and broader in all situations. 

Our clinical research trial found that playing Mood Bloom for just 15 minutes daily significantly reduced depression symptoms by over 45%. That’s equivalent to many other expensive and long-term treatments, such as therapy and antidepressant medication. 

Join us today and start playing your way to well!

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