A neon sign reading "DEPRESSION" in a dark room that represents what causes depression in the brain.

What causes depression in the brain? How does inaccurate information influence your emotional state?

Mo Gawdat identifies four processing errors that cause our brains to produce unhappiness. In That Little Voice In Your Head, he discusses each error and explains why it causes you to feel down in the dumps.

Discover more about the four brain errors that prevent you from experiencing happiness.

Processing Error #1: Inaccurate Information

When explaining what causes depression in the brain, Gawdat says that an error can happen on the front end of the process—you’ve fed your brain inaccurate information (input) that sets the system up for failure. For instance, imagine that you want a computer to give you the answer for 2×2 but your input is 1x2—you won’t get the output you want. In the same sense, if you want your brain to produce happiness, you must ensure that you’re feeding it the proper information to produce that result.

(Shortform note: Why is it so easy for us to accept and use inaccurate information? Some experts suggest that it’s because we’re not evolutionarily designed to question our perceptions—our ancestors valued information based on how well it helped them survive, not necessarily how accurate it was. For example, if there was a rumor a plant was poisonous, everyone would avoid that plant. No one would eat the plant and risk their safety to test whether the rumor was true. We easily accept inaccurate information because it’s safer to do so than to seek the truth and harm ourselves in the process. This adaptation persists today, even when information doesn’t pertain to a life-or-death situation.)

Processing Error #2: Evolutionary Overdrive Kicks In

The second common processing error is when our evolutionary survival instincts kick in—when our brain tells us to fear and avoid something, to protect something, or to want for something better. Gawdat says these instincts are often problematic because, unlike our ancient environment, which required us to rely on them for survival, virtually none of the issues the average person experiences today are serious enough to require these reactions. Instead, they cause us to perceive simple things as a worst-case scenario and result in unnecessary levels of stress and dissatisfaction. 

(Shortform note: In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris reiterates that we have three evolutionary instincts that make us unhappy by causing unwarranted stress and anxiety. However, while Harris agrees that the first instinct is fear and avoidance, he lumps protecting and wanting into the same category. Further, Harris’s third instinct is one Gawdat doesn’t address—the desire to fit into a group.)

Processing Error #3: Using the Wrong Side of Your Brain

Gawdat explains that the third processing error occurs when we use the wrong side of our brain to process and respond to the information we’ve fed it. He says the left and right sides of our brains have different functions and ways of solving problems—the left side is critical and analytical, and the right side is intuitive and creative. 

The left side helps us solve problems, set goals, plan, and so on. The right side helps us build and maintain relationships, feel emotions, appreciate art, play, and be curious. Put simply, the left brain deals with the tangible while the right brain deals with the intangible. Gawdat explains that both sides are important, but unhappiness occurs when we overuse the left side of our brain and underuse the right side of our brain. 

There are a few reasons why over-relying on one side of the brain causes unhappiness. 

First, overusing the left side of your brain causes you to overanalyze things—this leads you to ruminate and create problems that aren’t there. For example, if your boss had an exasperated tone, you might overuse the left side of your brain and spend the day wondering why and if you did something wrong. This approach causes unnecessary stress and anxiety, which leads to unhappiness. Instead, you could use the right side of your brain to empathize—realize that your boss probably just had a stressful day. Instead of catastrophizing with your left side, you could use your right side rationale to extend kindness and ask if there’s anything you can do to help.

Second, says Gawdat, overusing the left side of your brain blocks your intuition and emotions. This can cause you to make poor decisions that undermine your happiness. For example, overusing your left brain might cause you to leave a job where you’re fulfilled and financially stable for a job you hate but that pays more—a decision that ultimately makes you unhappy in life. Or, you may distance yourself from a person you love because you feel your emotions will hinder your progress at work—which leaves you unhappy and always wondering “what if.”

Ultimately, Gawdat says that to be successful and happy, you must use the right side of your brain before solely acting on what your logical left side tells you. 

Processing Error #4: Undirected Thinking

The final processing error that Gawdat says leads to unhappiness is undirected thinking—letting our mind wander. Research shows that when we allow our mind to wander, part of our brain almost always begins to focus on negative thoughts—this is human nature. And when you start to ruminate on negativity—what you should have done, what you’d rather be doing, why you’re not good enough, and so on—you start to feel emotions like regret, self-pity, and boredom that make you unhappy.

Instead, Gawdat says you must learn how to focus because when your attention is focused, rumination can’t take over. Further, when a ruminative thought crops up, Gawdat recommends acknowledging the thought by saying it out loud—sometimes your mind just wants you to acknowledge something and, once you do, you’ll be able to move on because you convince your brain that the “problem” will be handled.

(Shortform note: In The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman add that women are especially prone to rumination due to their brain function. The white matter in the corpus callosum of a woman’s brain (which connects the left and right brain) is more active than a man’s, meaning women are better at multitasking but are also more inclined to think about many things at once. Further, their brains are more active than men’s, meaning they notice more and have more to worry about. While these traits have benefits, they make it harder for women to focus on one thing at a time, making them prone to rumination.)

What Causes Depression in the Brain? Catching the 4 Errors

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.