15Behavior change in -minute sessions?
Researchers are exploring promising new treatments to modify
cognitive biases that underlie common mental health conditions.
BY KIRSTEN WEIR
Imagine a method to treat anxiety and other mental health disorders that was inexpensive, effective after a few short reatments, and didn’t require drugs or trained mental
health professionals. “It does sound like science fiction, doesn’t
it?” says Colin MacLeod, PhD, a psychologist at the University
of Western Australia.
Yet that’s the hope of experts studying cognitive bias
modification (CBM), a new technique that aims to alter
harmful thought patterns. The technique isn’t ready for
prime time yet. “This is quite a young field of science,” says
Emily Holmes, PhD, a clinical psychologist and cognitive
neuroscientist at the University of Oxford. But she and others
say the nascent field has great promise.
Holmes describes cognitive biases as “habits of thought.”
“Some people might have a habit of looking at a teacup and
seeing it as half empty, and others see it as half full,” she says.
That example is what’s known as an interpretation bias. The
glass-half-full type has a positive interpretation bias, while
the glass-half-empty type interprets the same information
with a negative bias. People with anxiety are more likely
to interpret ambiguous information in a negative way —
ascribing disapproving or unfriendly intentions to neutral facial
expressions, for instance.
Then there are attention biases — things you notice
subconsciously and automatically in the world around you.
One person coming into a colleague’s office might immediately
take in the images on a computer screen, Holmes says, while
someone with a spider phobia would be instantly drawn to
a web in the corner of the window. Similarly, a person with
anxiety is more likely to be tuned in to any potential (or
perceived) threats in his or her environment.
To date, most studies of cognitive bias have centered on
attention biases in anxiety. Numerous studies have demonstrated
a link between the two, MacLeod says. The classic method of
ferreting out these biases is the use of computerized dot-probe
tests. In these tests, probes such as slanting lines or patterns of
dots are alternately flashed on the screen near to or far from
emotional images (such as disgusted versus neutral faces) or
words (with negative or neutral meanings). Subjects are asked to
identify the probes as quickly as possible when they appear.
Individuals with anxiety are faster to spot probes that pop up
in that region of the screen where negative words or images had
just been, indicating that’s where the subjects had focused their
attention. In other words, anxious individuals are automatically
drawn to negative information.
The discovery of these negative attention biases hatched