Anxiety and depression can affect learning ability – Big Think

Uncertainty is a fact of life that can often impede our ability to make decisions. While everybody knows what it’s like to make the wrong choice based on incomplete data, a new

suggests that people with anxiety and depression have a particularly rough go of it. On a more positive note, it also points to ways to narrow the gap between those with these issues and everybody else.

The learning curve gets harder to climb when you’re anxious

In two separate experiments, researchers at UC Berkeley had participants play games for cash prizes.

The first involved test subjects playing a game, with correct answers awarding a prize. A wrong answer would lead to a mild electric shock, euphemistically deemed “stimulation” in the study. Participants had to select either a circle or a square, with the correct answer sometimes being predictable but always subject to change. Players showing symptoms of depression or anxiety had a more difficult time than others in keeping track of the changes.

In the second, players remotely played a similar game without the risk of electric shock. Wrong answers resulted in a loss of prizes. Again, those test subjects reporting anxiety or depression symptoms had a more difficult time keeping up as the conditions of the game changed compared to their peers without those symptoms.

The findings are in line with several previous studies, including one involving some of the same authors, suggesting that anxiety disorders impact people’s ability to predict future events using past data. The thought is that an excessive focus on previous failures prevents people from using data on changing conditions as effectively as possible.

The study also provides new evidence that people with depressive symptoms have similar difficulties in decision-making as those with anxiety symptoms. Previous research had suggested the two conditions impacted decision making differently, with the ability to focus on gaining rewards or avoiding pain being affected differently.

Senior author Sonia Bishop explained the findings to Berkeley News:

“When everything keeps changing rapidly, and you get a bad outcome from a decision you make, you might fixate on what you did wrong, which is often the case with clinically anxious or depressed people. Conversely, emotionally resilient people tend to focus on what gave them a good outcome, and in many real-world situations that might be key to learning to make good decisions.”

These findings also point towards treatment options. Techniques, such as those promoted by cognitive behavioral therapy, which help people focus on previous successes rather than failures, can help improve symptoms of various conditions and, by the implications of this study, decision-making ability.

The limited size of the study and its new findings mean that further investigations will have to take place before these ideas will be widely accepted. However, even the attempt to confirm or deny them will help advance our understanding of these conditions, how we learn, and the human brain in general. With the increasing number of people with symptoms of anxiety and depression, these advances can come none too soon.