New research published in Social Neuroscience sheds light on the neural responses related to endorsing positive and negative words about oneself. The findings could have implications for the development of depression in adolescence.

“The idea of the ‘self’ is a fascinating subject. How do we form our identities and learn who we are? This is a process that can become very sensitive in the adolescent years (just think of teenagers interacting with social media content related to themselves, for example) because of all the changes taking place – physically, biologically, and socially,” said study author Tianyuan Ke of King’s College London and the Yale Child Study Center.

“This can be really helpful for learning to adapt to the demands that come with changing roles, gaining independence, and so on, but it can also be a period of particular vulnerability. This is a period where we begin seeing a spike in symptoms of depression, especially in girls, who are more than twice as likely to develop depression as compared to boys.”

For their study, the researchers recorded the electrical brain activity of 109 adolescents as they read positive and negative words, such as “gloomy” or “joyful,” and indicated whether the words were self-descriptive.

By examining specific neural markers, the researchers found that those with an exaggerated tendency to view negative words as self-descriptive showed blunted processing of positive self-referential words, compared to those who tended to view positive words as self-descriptive.

In other words, individuals with a highly negative bias appeared to process self-referential information differently than individuals with a highly positive bias.

The findings indicate that “how we processes information in reference to ourselves (Am I cool? Am I a dork?) shapes how we notice, interpret, and remember things about ourselves,” Ke told PsyPost.

“This generally tends to happen with a positive bias (yes, I’m cool, duh!). Some people develop a negative bias which can unfortunately lead to a downward spiral when combined with environmental stressors.”

“People at extreme ends of this ‘negative-positive-bias’ can react very differently at both an automatic and effortful level in how their brains process the information to make self-judgments. We find that teenagers who are ‘glass half empty’ don’t necessarily focus more on describing themselves negatively, but they are lacking some of the intentional processing of positive self-information. This becomes a risk factor for maintaining negative schemas (I’m a dork),” Ke explained.

The researchers also found that depressive symptoms were associated with an increased endorsement of negative words. But, surprisingly, depressive symptoms appeared to be unrelated to brain activity.

“We worked with healthy adolescents in this study, but how the findings lead to treating or developing interventions for adolescents who are clinically depressed remains a question,” Ke said.

The study, “The glass is half empty: Negative self-appraisal bias and attenuated neural response to positive self-judgement in adolescence“, Tianyuan Ke, Jia Wu, Cynthia J. Willner, Zachariah Brown, Barbara Banz, Stefon van Noordt, Allison C. Waters, and Michael J. Crowley.