What is it about depression that draws people to search for the benefits it brings to its lucky victims? Since I’ve been writing this blog, many writers have had great success with books and articles describing its positive role in life – giving people a creative edge, helping them figure out their lives or simply serving as a healthy and normal response to misfortune. The problem with each of these essays is that they invite confusion between mild depression, or limited periods of deeper mood changes caused by life events, and the much more severe depressive disorders.
The latest contribution in this vein is Jonah Lehrer’s New York Times article, Depression’s Upside. It’s about a theory that takes depression’s virtues to a much higher plane than that of individual insight. Depression, it turns out, evolved as part of our genetic makeup because it enhanced the human capability for analytical thinking and problem-solving. In short, depression has helped the human race survive.
This isn’t his idea. He’s summarizing the conclusions of a scientific paper by J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist, and Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist, but he adds a lot of additional material to support the notion that depression has its brighter side.
The concept is that depression improves the mind’s ability to focus attention on “complex social problems” (failing marriage, loss of job) through the process of rumination – the repetitive analyzing of a single problem. (Hence, the theory is called the analytic-rumination hypothesis or ARH.) Rumination fires up the area of the brain that specializes in analytical thinking, making it easier to break apart the elements of a problem that might otherwise seem overwhelming and so make it easier to find a solution.
Isolation from the rest of the world supports this tight mental focus and keeps the mind from being distracted, as does – I presume – loss of interest in sex, food, human relationships and fresh air. Since all these symptoms are coordinated so nicely to help with problem-solving, the authors contend that they must represent an evolutionary adaptation rather than a malfunction.
If this is true, I’ve really bungled the gift of my genetic inheritance. In all the decades of dealing with severe depression I never solved a single complex social problem. Amazingly enough, my mind was infinitely distractible, incapable of clear decisions and subject to aimless drift into a cloud of nothingness. At other times, I obsessed about my failings and worthlessness in prolonged self-torture and often thought of suicide. Perhaps, though unaware of it, I did sharpen my analytical abilities while sleeping all the time. However, my isolation from my family, if you can believe it, seemed to create problems rather than solve them. Clearly, I’ve given evolution a setback, especially since I’ve likely passed on this my distorted version of this gift to our three sons.
But quite possibly, it’s not true at all – at least when you untangle the confused use of the word depression. Lehrer has taken a lot of heat for failing to do that. The psychiatrist Ronald Pies, for example, writes in his Psych Central post, The Myth of Depression’s Upside that Lehrer ignores many studies that reach the opposite conclusions about the effects of depression on thinking, relating both to mental function and the level of activity in the brain. He offers this anecdote:
The notion that severe depression may bring forth good things reminds me of a lecture I once attended on “fire safety” in the hospital setting. We were shown a movie of a house that had burned down in such ferocious heat that a package of frozen muffin dough had been completely baked. “So, the house wasn’t a total loss!” quipped one of the world-weary attendees. Yes, of course—people can learn from their severe depressive episodes, but often at the cost of emotional and spiritual conflagration.
Edward Champion at Reluctant Habits attacks Lehrer’s interpretations of the experiences of Charles Darwin, Kay Redfield Jamison and David Foster Wallace.
Peter Kramer also has little patience for the idea. That’s not surprising since Kramer produced a very convincing study, Against Depression, that attacked a long-standing tendency in our culture to glorify depression.
Prior to Lehrer’s article, Jerry A. Coyne, a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago wrote a devastating two-part critique of the Thomson-Andrews paper itself. He’s an expert on evolution and author of the highly praised Why Evolution Is True. He methodically takes apart the speculative reasoning and “paper-thin evidence” supporting the conclusions of Thomson and Andrews about the evolutionary benefits of depression. He looks at the original research papers cited by them and brings out the way in which their interpretations distort the actual findings of the studies.
So what’s going on? Why have there been so many claims about depression as a boon to human life, and why has there been a strong positive response from the public (excluding, of course, the hundreds of thousands of us who’ve lost so many years to the effects of this illness)?
I think part of it has to do with the confusion about what “depression” means. The same word is used to refer both to feelings of sadness or dejection in everyday life and to a set of clinically defined illnesses. Unfortunately, the psychiatric profession, however much it hopes to dispel this confusion with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), only reinforces it.
By setting the bar so low for a diagnosis of a major depressive episode (experiencing five out of nine listed symptoms for at least two weeks), the DSM invites psychiatrists and physicians to prescribe treatment for even isolated occurrences. To add to the prevalence of a depression diagnosis is the startling fact, reported in a recent study, that a quarter of psychiatrists and two-thirds of non-psychiatric physicians do not bother to use the loose DSM criteria when making a diagnosis.
Even when studies or popular books and articles do make the distinction between severe and mild depression, they tend to drop the qualifiers after that caveat, rely on the single word and make much more sweeping claims about depression’s beneficial impacts on life. The influence of drug industry advertising also encourages the idea that people shouldn’t put up with sadness but rather take the latest medication to restore a happy outlook on life. (But that’s a long story for another day.)
Many people do value depression as a factor that gives them a distinctive outlook on life, and they don’t want to sacrifice this dimension of mental experience to a drug-induced “cure.” I have no quarrel with that and respect whatever adaptation to depression people need to make. But individual experience and choices are one thing. Speculative theories about the brighter side of depression from psychiatric researchers are another. They have real-world consequences and need a lot of rigorous testing before put into practice. Unfortunately, that usually happens, if at all, long after the idea has gotten wide publicity and influenced attitudes of public and providers alike.