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Lingering negative thoughts may predict worsening wellbeing – University of Reading

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Lingering negative thoughts may predict worsening wellbeing

Release Date 22 March 2021

Scans of a brain from an fMRI

Peer Reviewed



The length that people hold onto negative thoughts in their mind have an important role in predicting wider mental health, a new study has found.

In a paper looking at brain activity published in the Journal of Neuroscience today (Monday 22 March 2021), researchers found that how a person’s brain evaluates fleeting negative stimuli may influence their long-term psychological well-being.

Professor Carien Van Reekum, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Reading said: 

“This is an exciting new development in understanding what our brain is up to when it comes to regulating emotion. We observed how the amygdala, a part of the brain linked to emotion and attention, held onto negative images in our tests and this was linked to negative emotions experienced in daily life.

"It’s a promising new development to help us more keenly understand what the brain is doing with different emotional interactions.”


For their study, the team led by researchers from the University of Miami set out to learn how different reactions in the brain to emotional pictures relate to momentary emotional experiences in daily life and even psychological well-being over time. They hypothesized that the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure on both sides of the cerebrum, played an important role.

They confirmed their suspicions by analyzing data from the Midlife in the U.S. (MIDUS) study, a large longitudinal analysis of the health and well-being of thousands of adults as they age.

The team analyzed data from 52 MIDUS participants who had completed a questionnaire about their psychological well-being and, in a nightly phone call, reported the stressful events and positive and negative emotions they had experienced each day for about a week.  They also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans that measured and mapped their brain activity as they viewed and rated 60 positive images and 60 negative images, each of which were followed by images of neutral facial expressions.

Connecting data from the questionnaires, the daily phone diaries, and brain snapshots using fMRI, the researchers determined that people whose left amygdala held on to negative stimuli for a shorter time period were more likely to report more positive and fewer negative emotions for a random week in their daily lives—which translated to more enduring well-being over time.  Conversely, people whose left amygdala response to negative images persisted more over time reported more negative and fewer positive emotions in their daily lives.

Nikki Puccetti, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami and lead author of the study said:

“One way to think about it is the longer your brain holds on to a negative event, or stimuli, the unhappier you report being. Basically, we found that the persistence of a person’s brain in holding on to a negative stimulus is what predicts more negative and less positive daily emotional experiences. That in turn predicts how well they think they’re doing in their life.”

Dr Aaron Heller, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami said:

“The majority of human neuroscience research looks at how intensely the brain reacts to negative stimuli, not how long the brain holds on to a stimulus. We looked at the spillover—how the emotional colouring of an event spills over to other things that happen. Understanding the biological mechanisms of that is critically important to understanding the differences in brain function, daily emotions, and well-being.”


The paper was led by the University of Miami, and included work by Stacey M. Schaefer, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Carien M. van Reekum, of the University of Reading; Anthony D. Ong, of Cornell University; David M. Almeida, of The Pennsylvania State University; and Carol D. Ryff and Richard J. Davidson, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



Puccetti N. A., Schaefer, S.M., van Reekum, C.M., Ong, A.D., Almeida, D.M., Ryff, C.D., Davidson, R.J., Heller, A.S., 2021, Linking amygdala persistence to real-world emotional experience and

psychological well-being; The Journal for Neuroscience. D



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