Conditioned Response – An Alternative to Antidepressant Drugs?

Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel and colleagues published an article in Neuron titled An Animal Model of a Behavioral Intervention for Depression. Using mice, they investigated the mechanisms of “learned safety” and its antidepressant effect.

“Learned safety” is created in mice using classical conditioning. By playing a tone only when the mice were safe from an electric shock, the team taught them to associate the tone with safety. They were then able to achieve an effect comparable to giving the mice antidepressant drugs by playing the tone while the mice were undergoing stress.

HappinessKandel comments, “Learning involves alterations in the brain and gene expression. Psychotherapy is only a form of learning.” So this experiment has implications for psychological interventions in which humans learn to activate their own antidepressant capabilities in the context of therapy.

There is a simple technique, again using classical conditioning, which is widely used to achieve this kind of effect. It’s known as “anchoring,” and it works like this.

Sit quietly and relax, and summon up a vivid memory of a positive situation which you associate with feelings of safety, security and happiness (or any other feelings that you want to be able to access readily — it could be confidence and competence, for example, or calm and peace). If you don’t have such a memory or prefer to use an imaginary scene, create a mental model of a situation in which you would naturally feel those feelings. Make the experience as vivid as possible, using all the senses.

Now gently press your thumb on one hand to a finger of the same hand. This associates the finger press to the positive feelings.

You may need to practice a few times to create a really strong association, but soon you will be able to summon up the positive feelings when you need to simply by using the finger press signal, just as the mice automatically changed their mental state when they heard the tone that they had learned meant safety.

For severe depression, drug interventions may still be needed. But using this simple technique, you can increase your control over your own normal moods and respond to life more positively, calmly and effectively.


D POLLAK, F MONJE, L ZUCKERMAN, C DENNY, M DREW, E KANDEL (2008). An Animal Model of a Behavioral Intervention for Depression Neuron, 60 (1), 149-161 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.07.041

Mike Reeves-McMillan, MA

Mike Reeves-McMillan, MA, is a hypnotherapist and health coach in Auckland, New Zealand, with a particular interest in non-drug alternatives to pharmacological intervention. He's currently creating the Emotional Circuit-Breaker Toolkit, a collection of techniques for managing emotion more effectively using mental techniques.
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