Focus, Insight, Creativity and Depression

What’s the use of melancholy and melancholic feelings?  If depression and negative thoughts are so bad, you would have thought that evolution would have selected those prone to it out of the gene pool, by now.  After all, there’s an awful lot of depression about, compared to other mental disorders.  It wouldn’t be a far stretch to suggest that depression is one of the more common psychological afflictions, if not the most common.  What’s depression for?  What purpose does it serve?  Is it a disorder at all?  Should we be so hell-bent on lifting the depressed out of their depressive moods?  If we do, at what cost to the depressed person?

There is little doubt that surviving in a depressive state is costly to the individual.  Their bodies flood with inflammatory cytokines that begin making major and potentially catastrophic changes to their physiology.  One of the side effects of this flood of proteins is that the hippocampus no longer regenerates new neural cells, as well destroying existing ones.  The person that is depressed feels physically bad.  They lose their sense of pleasure in things they previously enjoyed.  They become remote and detached from the people they love.  Their sleep is disrupted.  It’s miserable.  For what conceivable reason would evolution allow organisms, in large numbers, to exist in this state for any period of time?  What’s the evolutionary payoff for all the suffering?

It would seem that if depression makes you a poor mate, because depressed people are very hard to live with, then you would expect to find more depression in the aged, where it matters less for the survival of one’s own genes.  In the main, we don’t.  In fact, we see a lot of depression in the young, whose prospects for mating can be greatly harmed by their depression.  How has evolution not bred this mental state out, by now?  If it were a genetic predisposition, you would have thought that depressives would have failed to find mates, over successive generations, and that eventually the gene for depression would have diluted and disappeared, in the general population.  Clearly, perfectly ordinary genes produce depression.

We might postulate that depression is a side effect of modern Western lifestyles, which we have not evolved to cope with fully.  Like obesity, which is due to the prevalence and ready availability of excess fructose in the modern diet, perhaps depression is just a side effect of the increasing opportunities for despair, in today’s society.  It turns out that just about every culture that has been examined, including pre-modern societies, exhibit symptoms of depression and melancholy.  It’s not a recent phenomenon.  We’ve had depression prevailing in our evolutionary past.  So, what is this mental state for?  There are clearly heavy costs, but are there some evolutionarily significant benefits?

The interesting thing about depression is that depressed people often report persistent rumination.  They go over their thoughts, again and again.  In fact, they go into a state of deep thought, highly focused on solving the problem that is making them feel depressed, to the exclusion of interacting in important human relationships, experiencing pleasure, sleeping, eating and so on.  Hold that thought.  It’s important.

It turns out that every ordinary human brain has a molecule in it that is called 5HT1A and it’s a receptor.  This receptor binds to serotonin, another molecule that ordinary brains have, but which is implicated in depression.  In fact, there are medications that seek to modify serotonin uptake, to treat depression.  In animal models (rats), specimens that don’t have this 5HT1A receptor show fewer depressive symptoms, in response to negative stress.  Consequently, pharmaceutical companies are now working on treatments that target this specific receptor, to “cure” depression.

However, it seems this might not be a good idea.  It turns out that the composition of the functional part of the rat 5HT1A receptor is 99% similar to that of humans.  This suggests that it is such a vital component of the brain’s normal functioning that evolution has sought to preserve it.  Should we be obliterating it?  The ability to turn depression on, as a mental state, would seem to be important, rather than a dysfunction, accident, defect or undesirable feature of brain functioning.  We have evolved the ability to flip the depression bit for some purposeful reason that matters to our survival and ability to propagate our genes, it would seem.

In life, we encounter very difficult to solve, complex problems.  Our approach to solving them is to apply analysis.  Analysis is the best tool we have in our current cognitive toolbox, but it requires slow, focused, uninterrupted, sustained processing.  Disruption interferes with complex, analytical problem solving.  Programmers know this.  When you interrupt somebody that is writing complex software code, it takes them a full fifteen minutes to re-immerse themselves in the problem domain.  In resurfacing from the problem solving zone, the mental model they constructed in their mind is temporarily destroyed due to the distraction and programmers must reload that mental model, from scratch, when they go back to their coding, before they can make forward progress.  The period of time required to rebuild the mental model with sufficient fidelity to carry on with the analysis and problem solving is a full fifteen minutes, on average.  If you continually interrupt a programmer, at quarter hour intervals, he or she will make literally no progress on solving their problem.  All of their time will be spent in re-immersion.

The analysis approach to solving complex social problems is an interesting mode of thinking.  By dwelling and ruminating on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller sub-components, which can be addressed and processed, one at a time, the individual components are usually much simpler to solve than the whole problem is, so the complex problem becomes more tractable.  It is said to yield to analysis.  As a way of solving difficult things, it’s very productive.

What if depression is needed to help you throw all of your mental resources at analytical problem solving?  What if depression is a painful, expensive adaptation that allows us to confront and solve complex problems, which clearly allow us to survive and propagate, in the face of such problems?  What if saving the whole world and its environment requires that our best, most creative minds endure depressive symptoms, just so that they can shut out the constant and increasing stream of distraction, for long enough to come up with the answers?

The analytical rumination hypothesis proposes that depression is an evolved response to complex problems, whose function is to minimise disruptions and sustain analysis of those problems by giving the root problem prioritised access to thinking and processing resources in the brain.  This is achieved by reducing the desire to engage in distracting activities, through the onset of anhedonia.  Your physiology produces psychomotor changes that reduce exposure to distracting stimuli.  You become withdrawn, socially isolated and disinterested in trivia.  You become physically lethargic, so that you can sit, quietly and ruminate on your complex problem.  Brains are finite and so processing resources are limited.  A mental state that permits sustained focus on analysis of the root problem necessarily reduces the ability to concentrate on other things.

Support for the analytical rumination hypothesis now includes evidence from many levels – genes, neurotransmitters and their receptors, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, neuroenergetics, pharmacology, cognition, behaviour and efficacy of treatments.  The hypothesis also provides explanations for puzzling findings in the depression literature, challenges the belief that serotonin transmission is low and depression and has implications for treatment.

Brain researchers have found that the capacity for intense focus relies in large part in a part of the brain called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is located a few inches behind the forehead.  This brains structure has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, for example, but it seems to be specifically important for maintaining attention.  The VLPFC is the mechanism by which you achieve and maintain focus.  Experiments show that neurons in the VLPFC must fire continuously to keep us on task, so that we don’t become sidetracked by distractions and irrelevancies.  It has also been show that deficits in the VLPFC have been associated with attention deficit disorder.

Several studies of depressed patients showed an increase in brain activity in the VLPFC.  Neuroscientists in China found a spike in functional connectivity between the lateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain in depressed patients, with more severe depressions leading to more prefrontal activity.  In other words, the more depressed the patient, the greater the connectivity of the prefrontal cortex with other parts of the brain and more active the VLPFC.

One explanation for this observation is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies the process of rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem.  This relentless fixation is also thought to explain cognitive deficits in depressed subjects, because they are too busy thinking about their real-life problems to bother with an artificial lab exercise.  When the VLPFC is running at high levels of activity, people can’t be bothered to care about distractions.  Human attention is a scarce resource and the neural effects of depression make sure this limited resource is efficiently allocated to the solution of the complex problem at hand.

Another feature of the human brain is that our working memory is extremely limited, but highly efficient.  Some refer to it as utilised in our “Type 2” mode of thinking.  It’s used when we concentrate.  Reliance of the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to a detailed and analytical style of thinking.  Rumination is rooted in working memory.  Working memory is a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to work with all the information stuck in our consciousness (and perhaps some in our unconscious).  When people use their working memory, whether they are performing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong, they tend to think in a more deliberate, methodical fashion, breaking complex problems down into their simpler component parts.

Recapping, then, the VLPFC must fire continuously, so that the body and brain is organised to help people analyse their problems without getting distracted, but this is very energetically demanding for the neurons of the VLPFC.  As with any piece of physical machinery, if you run it at maximum capacity for a prolonged period of time, it can break down under the continued stress.  Studies of depression in rats shows that the 5HT1A receptors is involved in supplying the neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down.  These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue, uninterrupted, with minimal neuronal damage or exhaustion.  This might explain why the 5HT1A receptor has been so carefully preserved by evolution.  It plays a very important role in preserving our capacity for prolonged rumination on hard problems.

The problem with Type 2 thinking is that this form of deliberate thought processing is slow, tiresome, exhausting and prone to distraction, if for no other reason than to provide some relief from the pain of thinking like this.  The VLPFC can grow exhausted and give out.  If depression didn’t exist at all, or we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations, then we might be less likely to solve our predicaments, which might have dire consequences for us.  Our wisdom is hard won, doesn’t come cheaply and we pay for it with pain and mental exhaustion.

Counter intuitively, sometimes giving our ruminations a rest is the best way to continue with analytical thinking on a particularly complex problem.  Sleeping on it can really provide the necessary respite to revive the old grey cells.  This, of course, is hard to do if you are depressed and fixated on your problem.  You have to find a way to temporarily suspend your depression.  If your VLPFC gets fatigued (and it will), then a bit of deliberate distraction is useful to rest the thinking machinery and let it recuperate.  It’s why a hot bath is sometimes the best place to begin coming at a difficult problem from a new angle.

It’s also why creative people need to sometimes do nothing at all, on purpose, letting the future creation in their imaginations percolate, and why displacement activities may have a genuinely positive role to play in problem solving.  I despair when I see managers of creative people accusing them of goofing off or wasting time, when they seem to be inactive or distracted from the work at hand, as if they should be grinding out solutions to difficult problems, uninterrupted, the entire time, like mechanical machines.  Fatigue of the VLPFC won’t let them and driving it to destruction is not a good answer.  In fact, it leads to burnout.  This VLPFC fatigue might also explain the erratic mood swings and sudden impulsivity of creative and analytical people.  They have to move from rumination to rest and back again somehow.

Our lucid insights are more often than not the result of these prolonged ruminations.  We might not be aware that one leads to the other, but it is highly likely that when you suddenly have clear insight into a solution or situation, it is because your mind has been crunching on the issue for some considerable amount of time.  In other words, depression, because it permits fuller use of the available intellectual processing resources of your brain, can lead to insights and these may come sooner, because of the prioritisation of thinking about a specific problem that depression enables.

Is this analytical rumination hypothesis mere idle speculation, though?  Is there any evidence that depression is useful in analysing complex problems?  For one thing, if depressive rumination were harmful, as most clinicians and researchers appear to assume it is, then bouts of depression should be slower to resolve when people are given interventions that encourage rumination, such as having them write about their strongest thoughts and feelings (sometimes known as “blogging”, for example).  Several studies have found the opposite to be true.  Expressive writing appears to promote quicker resolution of depression, because depressed people gain insight into their problems faster, through the process of writing about them.  The more efficiently you can ruminate, with aids to clear thinking and analysis, the faster your depression resolves.  Perhaps this is what fuels and motivates the millions of blog posts that are written each day.  It could be a form of self-help and a way of organising thoughts about complex issues.

I claim that artistic creativity is a species of hard problem solving that, at least in part, yields to the analytical thinking approach which depression enables.  Creativity definitely involves rumination.  Any artist will be aware of this.  It also requires focus and defences against distraction.  Perhaps this is why so-called “depressive disorders” are associated with creative people, especially artists.  What we identify as “the artists’ struggle” and the associated inner angst that accompanies it could simply be the artist’s mind prioritising its processing resources to bring something into the world that is intellectually demanding to create.  Maybe we need, as artists, to devote a lot of our brain power to create things that never existed before.  We might be using depressive states to devote the requisite cognitive processing to the task of making something out of nothing.

In a survey about their mental history conducted by neuroscientists, using thirty writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as subjects, it was found that eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression.  In biographical studies of British writers and artists, a similar theme emerged.  Psychiatrists found that successful individuals were eight times as likely to suffer from major depressive illness as people in the general population.  The price of success appears to be bouts of depression, the research suggests.

When it comes to creativity, depression is intertwined with a cognitive style of thinking that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art.  One of the most important qualities, in the creative process, is persistence.  Successful writers, for example, share the quality of getting hit repeatedly, but always getting back up and trying again.  They stick with their work until it’s right.  They’re resilient because they can keep devoting their brain’s processing powers to writing, almost exclusively.  While depression is not exactly a gift of the Muse and can negatively impact the quality of an artist’s life, many forms of creativity benefit greatly from the relentless focus that depression makes possible.

Sadly, using your powers of focused thinking is often inseparable from the suffering that accompanies it.  They say that if you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.  That’s not to be an apologist for the dreadful pain and suffering or to suggest that the price is necessarily worth paying.  It’s just that the two frequently go together and that many artists resign themselves to the linkage.

Another feature of people in depressive states is that they have a tendency to solve social dilemmas better.  Depressed people are always searching for better outcomes than their current situation appears to offer.  Various studies seem to confirm that social dilemmas, which depression helps solve because it enables focused rumination, would seem to have been precisely the kind of problems difficult enough to require analysis and also important enough to drive evolution of such a costly emotion.  If, for example, a woman with young children discovers her husband is having an affair, is her best strategy to ignore it, or force him to choose between here and the other woman, at the risk of being abandoned?  Laboratory experiments indicate that depressed people are better at solving situations like this, through better analysis of the costs and benefits of the different options that they might take.  It’s harsh, but true.

Another feature of depression is a tendency to become overly self-critical, harsh on ourselves and dismissive of our talents and achievements.  When people are stuck in a ruminative spiral, their accomplishments become invisible.  Their mind is fixated and solely interested in what has gone wrong.  While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence (“retreat to the man-cave” being a social observation of the phenomenon), with an unwillingness to communicate, there is some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive (i.e. artistic) abilities.  Sadness, it has been found, correlates with clearer, more compelling sentence structure.  Negative moods promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.  We become more eloquent and comprehensible.  Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined, articulate prose.  Our sentences are polished by our angst.  A creative writer appears to be one for whom writing is a complex problem to be solved.  I wager that the same holds for painting and when composing music, too.  The ability to be self-critical, to not hide behind past achievements, keens the edge of our artistic powers.

It needs to be said, because it is an obvious and sinister danger, that “solving depression” through the chemical obliteration of the 5HT1A receptor, as is the goal of several pharmaceutical companies, could be used as tool of mind control, oppression and repression.  Call it “female intellectual mutilation” or FIM, if you want, because females would be the first targeted, due to their higher incidence of depression.  If you, as a dictator or tyrant (benign or otherwise), decided you wanted to quell all dissent, eliminate informed debate about hard problems with complex solutions, maintain the status quo and leave all the thinking to those in charge, then preventing people from accessing their ability to solve complex problems, because they are unable to use depression as a way of marshalling brainpower resources to do so, would be a deadly and effective way to do it.

If you eradicate the 5HT1A receptor, or inhibit its action, you might have a contented, superficially happy population, as if they were all taking Aldous Huxley’s fictional “Soma”, but you would effectively prevent them from participating in meaningful intellectual life.  They couldn’t form opinions that ran counter to prevailing orthodoxies, because they couldn’t focus long enough to think analytically or persistently about anything.  All progress would cease.  Is that a state of mind and existence that sits comfortably with you?  It causes me great disquiet.  I am motivated to ruminate on ways to prevent this all coming to pass.

The corollary, of course, is that under such a system of 5HT1A eradication, only those in charge would be capable of analytical thinking (assuming they wish to retain it) and hence only they would suffer the ill effects of depression.  The burden of being in charge would be the need to suffer uniquely, while others merely nodded and grinned.  It is hard to imagine any lust for power being strong enough to accept power on these terms, with such strings attached.  Of course, if nobody thinks the analytical thoughts, then we all perish.  We could become extinct at the hands of a cure for depression, set adrift on an ocean of trivial distractions.  Imagine that.

We’re already a long way down this path.  In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination as a dangerous (subversive?) mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods.  After all, so the thinking goes, there is nothing profound about depressive rumination.  There is just a recursive loop of woe.  That, of course, is to wholly ignore the fruits of depressive ruminations, which are frequently astounding breakthroughs.

According to conventional psychiatry, which also sees “above-average creativity” as a disorder, people with ruminative tendencies are more likely to become depressed (actually, it’s probably the other way around, confusing cause with effect).  Being depressed is, by their definition, bad, so being prone to rumination is also seen as bad.  These ruminating people are also more likely to be unnerved by stressful events, it is asserted.  That’s bad too.  Self identified ruminators showed significantly more depressive symptoms after experiencing an earthquake than so-called “normal” people, so this is deemed to be very bad.  It doesn’t stop there.  Ruminators exhibit cognitive defects because rumination hijacks the stream of consciousness.  They become exquisitely attentive to their own pain and numerous studies confirm that depressed subjects struggle to think about anything else.  This leads to poor performance on tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information.  Psychiatrists see it as a bad thing to devote your working memory to solving complex, difficult problems relevant to your real life in preference to passing their made-up memory and executive functions tests, which demand the use of that same scarce working memory, with flying colours.  Researchers note that these cognitive deficits disappear when subjects are first distracted from their depression and are thus better able to focus on the exercise.  Of course!  If you want to hijack a person’s analytical problem solving abilities to perform an artificial test of cognitive abilities, then by all means remove their depression.  It’s inconveniently in the way of the researcher’s experiment and career progression, after all.  Such research, besides raising several serious ethical issues, has reinforced the view that rumination is a useless kind of pessimism and a perfect, colossal waste of mental energy.  That was the consensus.

The evolutionary perspective leads to different conclusions.  Under the evolutionary model, the mind is a finely tuned machine, the result of millions of years of selection, which is not prone to pointless programming bugs.  In this model, rumination has a purpose.  It is readily observed that rumination is often a response to a specific psychological blow, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job.  Although psychiatry, through its diagnostic bible, the DSM ignores such stressors when diagnosing depressive disorder, it is pretty clear that the problems of everyday life play a huge role in causing mental illness.  The DSM, fortunately, makes an exception for grief caused by bereavement as being a causal factor in depressive disorder, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than their prescribed sixty days, but depressive disorder “just appears”, in the absence of this one specific psychological stressor.

Rumination is self-evidently unpleasant for those that experience it, but it is usually a response to something real.  It’s how we deal with real setbacks.  It would seem to be nonsensical to suggest that the brain would go haywire and collapse into disorder, just when we need clear solutions from it the most.  Evolution wouldn’t work that way.  It would be like animals throwing themselves into the jaws of lions, limply, when under attack by a pride.  Pretty soon, an evolutionary strategy that just gives up in the face of adversity would cause mass extinction.  Yet, this is precisely what the psychiatric profession invites us to believe about depression.  I find it increasingly difficult to trust or believe psychiatrists.  They don’t understand how things get created.

When the whole world is tending toward more and more distractions, eating up more of your day, isn’t it likely that the increasing incidence of depression is simply a natural, adaptive, counterbalancing reaction to this tendency?  The more distracted other people try to make us; the more we resort to depression as a way of creating some focused time for deep and relevant thinking.  If there are vast fortunes spent on entertaining us to death, ensuring that we are compliant consumers who spend their days obsessed by fashion and celebrity gossip, wouldn’t any right thinking population take steps to increase their quota of serious, analytical, problem-solving time to balance this out?  If depression was the route to achieving this focus and insight, via extended rumination, wouldn’t you expect depression to go up, as distraction increases?  That would seem to be the healthiest response, to such a stressor.

It’s true that sometimes people are reluctant to disclose the reason for their depression because it is embarrassing or sensitive.  They find it painful to discuss, so they believe they must stoically soldier on and ignore their pain.  People often have difficulty putting their complex internal struggles into words.  However, depression is very likely nature’s way of telling you that you have complex problems that your mind is intent on solving.  Therapies ought to encourage depressive rumination, rather than trying to stop or sidestep it.  The focus should be on trying to help people solve the problems that trigger their bouts of depression.  When a person is resistant to discussing their depressive ruminations, it is up to the therapist to identify and try to overcome those barriers.

What people are seeking are good answers to their hard problems, not a way of shutting down their thinking and ignoring those problems, leaving them without solution.  The first resort of clinicians, the chemical kosh, does little more than defer solution of those pressing and important problems.  In some cases, the pharmaceutical answer simply makes the real problems worse, because it leads to inattention to solving them, in a timely way.

Considering all the evidence, depression seems less like a disorder, where the brain is operating in a haphazard or malfunctioning way.  Instead, depression seems more like an intricate, highly-organised, evolutionary adaptation that performs a specific function – marshalling your brainpower exclusively to solve pressing problems that confront you, in your life.

For this reason, treating depression with antidepressants is probably highly counterproductive.  A typical patient, when asked by her doctor if her antidepressants were working, replied characteristically.  She said, “Yes, they’re working great.  I feel so much better.  But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch.  It’s just now he’s tolerable”.  Is enabling people to tolerate unacceptable situations really the goal of psychiatry?  Should we be treating and eliminating depression, but in so doing allow people to remain victimised, trapped in terrible circumstances and at the mercy of their tormentors?  Is that even ethical?

People tend to be depressed for a reason, even if they are reluctant to access or articulate the deep reason.  Their pain is usually about something.  It’s usually about something real.  While drugs might make them feel better, no effective progress is ever made in resolving the underlying situation that gives rise to the pain and depression, as if it is an irrelevancy.  Consider that people on antidepressants have something like a 76% chance of relapse within a year, when drugs are discontinued.  Patients who are given cognitive talk therapy, who attempt to address and solve their problems, have a relapse rate of around 31%.  Patients treated with medications are about twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavioural therapy.  Why should this be?  The relapse rate suggests that patients on drugs aren’t really solving anything.  The root cause of their depression remains unaddressed.  In fact, the drugs interfere with the solution, so patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems in any meaningful way.  They end up having to stay on the drugs indefinitely, while their real, actual lives remain in disarray.  They just don’t care about it anymore, thanks to the effect of the antidepressants.  The equivalent analogy is that it’s as if the patient presented with an infection, but psychiatry treated only the fever.  The infection might run rampant and even accelerate, while efforts are spent on lowering body temperature.

In recent decades, society has developed a distinct bias against negative moods.  The dismissal of sadness and its synonyms as trivial and dangerous is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of positive psychology, a scientific field devoted to the pursuit of happiness.  A number of positive psychologists, all well meaning I’m sure, have, in recent years, written self-help books that try to teach you to overcome negative feelings and feelings of sadness.  They outline the scientific principles behind lasting fulfilment and getting the life we want and it involves studious avoidance of melancholy and depressive rumination.

However, new research on negative moods suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings and emotions serve important purposes.  For example, it has been repeatedly demonstrated, in experiments, that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations.  You make better decisions when you’re sad, compared to when you’re happy.  The reason is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition.  Apparently, sadness promotes information processing strategies best suited to dealing with more demanding situations.  Test subjects who are melancholy are better at judging the accuracy of rumours and recalling past events.  They’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers.  In other words, melancholy sharpens their mental acuity.  Sadness increases your ability to remember small, seemingly insignificant and incidental details and makes you more aware and attentive.  It’s a form of heightened consciousness, in fact.

Does that imply that depression makes us any smarter?  Researchers have found that when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a maths problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyse and solve it.  There is evidence that people who get more depressed, while grappling with complex problems they are working on in an intelligence test, tend to score higher on the test.  Also, non-depressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test.  In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem to engage with induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness.  It seems that it doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical conundrum or working through a broken heart.  In either case, the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy.  This suggests that what we call “depressive disorder” is, in fact, an extreme form of an ordinary thought process and part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward solving our problems, like a magnet to metal.

Does despondency help us solve anything?  Apparently so.  Having a depressed affect makes people think better.  Our everyday challenge is to accept the misery, to embrace the tonic of our despair.  If we can stand the struggle, the results are available to us.  Saying that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its sheer awfulness.  It would be nice if we were able to focus and think analytically without so much misery and disruption.  A fever, after all, might have benefits, but it’s still a very unpleasant experience and one we don’t like to repeat.  This is the evolutionary paradox: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.  Who is to blame us?

That said, if we let clinicians and pharmaceutical companies railroad us into “cures” for depression, it might be a terrible loss.  It’s possible that the loss of depression would mean the loss of concentrated, focused, analytical, problem-solving powers, which would make us all vulnerable to being annihilated by complex problems we had lost the ability to solve.  The tsunami of distractions that are increasingly a feature of modern life and the over-zealous, almost compulsive need to stay positive at all times, or else, may make us evolutionary sitting ducks, when confronted by complex disasters.  We won’t be able to summon the brain power necessary to avoid being creamed.

We might also lose all access to innovation, progress and artistic creativity, if we eradicate depression.  Our brains would forego insights into deep truths, replacing them instead with a fog of trivial, immediate, instant-gratification, feel-good pleasures, thereby losing our sense of purpose and meaning in life in the process, like some kind of industrially farmed animals.  Maybe the eradication of depression carries too high a price to pay, for our species, its survival and its propagation.

It’s a problem worth ruminating on, isn’t it?



About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to Focus, Insight, Creativity and Depression

  1. clarelhdm says:

    mmm…I think depression is different to rumination or just introversion. The thing with depression is you don’t think well or clearly, you begin to think in negative, inaccurate ways. I am not saying it is good to be jolly all the time, or to pretend everything has simple answers as much modern pop-psychology does, but deep depression is not good thinking. The things people believe when they are severely depressed are not accurate. That’s why severely depressed people commit suicide…they believe nothing will change, ever, and that there is no way for improvement. Perhaps in a very, very, small percentage of people this is true and accurate, for the other 99%, this is a negative distortion. I probably prefer the idea, essentially Jungian, that depression is part of a journey, for a while you pass through the darkness, and it is an important process, and (except in very extreme cases) shouldn’t be avoided by drug therapy. But you must come out of the process, and a way of doing that is to pinpoint the inaccuracies of depressive thinking.

    • You make some very good and valid points, but do follow the links I cited. I was reporting the research, which indicates that depression and being able to think clearly are intertwined. I personally believe that you can go too far and that at the point where depression is chronic, thinking can become dysfunctional, but the issue I was highlighting was that the origins of depression are in an adaptation required to do focused thinking. The literature is really interesting and I encourage you to probe more deeply. I also certainly think that efforts to eliminate depression are probably wrong headed, except as you note in cases where depression is leading to dysfunctional ideation.

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