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The Impact of Negative Thoughts on Cognitive Function

By: Andrea Kaminsky

The mechanism behind repetitive negative thinking remains one of the great unsolved problems of neuroscience. Grappling with the question more than a hundred years ago, scientists formulated a theory behind the formation of negative thoughts and how they are linked to different neurological and psychological disorders. Neuroscientists now have the knowledge and tools to tackle this problem, however, there are still many unanswered questions about the different mechanisms of negative thoughts and whether repetitive negative thinking can lead to disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Repetitive negative thinking is a phenomenon that occurs when a person compulsively lingers on thoughts that stimulate or reflect on negative experiences. This often is a factor that can lead to a decreased feeling of satisfaction and quality of life. In this sense, repetitive negative thoughts have a distributed representation: each idea involves thousands of emotions, and each emotion is involved in possibly thousands of thoughts.

To this day, neuroscience research is more focused on topics such as divergent thinking and metacognitive awareness, however, with the emergence of mental health problems, researchers need to shift their focus in order to find answers to the questions we have regarding mental health. Repetitive negative thinking (RNT) remains undiagnosed in many patients since the personal traits associated with RNT remain uncharacterized.

A meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies indicated that activity in the default mode network and the front parietal network underlie component processes of repetitive negative thinking. The impaired disengagement of the default mode network and the front parietal network can lead to negative self-referential thoughts, a lack of attentional control, and increased conflict signaling. Both of these networks are regions of the brain that are viewed as essential for goal-directed behavior and the lack of connectivity between the two regions can lead to poorer cognitive task performance. Without these two regional networks functioning, the brain will start to stimulate negative thoughts which facilitate higher levels of depressive rumination.

In a recent study, researchers measured the participant’s level of repetitive negative thinking by showing them neutral and emotionally evocative images. By analyzing their eye movements and sleep cycles, researchers were able to see how the preponderance of intrusive thoughts stimulated cognitive decline. Subsequently, scientists also tested participant’s level of cognitive function through simple tests and also used PET brain scans in order to determine the presence of tau and amyloid, two proteins that are biological markers for Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers were able to determine that there was a relationship between repetitive negative thinking, cognitive decline, and ultimately Alzheimer’s disease. The results showed that high levels of amyloid and tau can disrupt the brain’s circuitry making it difficult for people to disengage from negative thoughts. On a biological level, repetitive negative thinking leads to increased stress levels. In some cases, RNT is seen as a behavioral marker of chronic stress since it will elevate blood pressure and ultimately increase the level of the cortisol hormone in the body. These findings on proprioception support the theory that engaging the different networks in the brain is key to determining the relationship between RNT and cognitive deficiencies.

The relationship between repetitive negative thinking and creative cognition is one of the most intriguing topics in cognitive science research. This research is the first step towards a better understanding of the impacts that repetitive negative thoughts can have on a human’s mental and physical state. Currently, cognitive behavioral therapy is the only possible treatment for RMT. Subsequent research needs to focus on whether reducing these thinking patterns will lead to a reduced risk of being diagnosed with dementia. In the meantime, a healthy diet and proper lifestyle habits can help reduce the effects of these thinking patterns and ultimately save people's lives. Taking steps to look after your mental health is very important especially for the people who suffer from repetitive negative thinking.

The findings of this research give hope to the future treatment of Alzheimer’s and other mental health disorders. Hopefully, in the future, it will be possible to artificially disengage the ability to formulate negative thoughts and counteract the damaging effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other similar diseases. As you see, even after all this past research, our brain is still full of surprises. And the journey to discover it has only just begun. Mental health disorders can be some of the biggest medical problems in our society today. Investigating how to counteract the effects of negative thinking patterns will be vital in developing effective treatments for mental health-related disorders in the future.


1. Burrows CA, Timpano KR, Uddin LQ. Putative brain networks underlying repetitive negative thinking and comorbid internalizing problems in autism. Clinical Psychological Science. 2017.

2. Ehring T, Watkins ER. Repetitive negative thinking as a transdiagnostic process. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. 2008.

3. McEvoy PM, Watson H, Watkins ER, Nathan P. The relationship between worry, rumination, and comorbidity: evidence for repetitive negative thinking as a transdiagnostic construct. Journal of Affective Disorders. 2013.


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