Monday, March 01, 2010

Depression's Upside

Jonah Lehrer (a really bright guy, author of "How We Decide", "Proust was a Neuroscientist", and the blog "The Frontal Cortex") has made his first New York Times Magazine contribution, an excellent article on depression that focuses on work of Andrews and Thomson who suggest that depression is a evolved behavior that has the function of removing us from normal daily behaviors to focus on and hopefully solve a pressing life issue.  They describe their model as the "analytic-rumination hypothesis." A few clips from the article:
Several studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients. Most recently, a paper to be published next month by 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. One explanation for this finding is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem...the reliance on the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking. That’s because rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory — and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong — they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.

The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.

....the analytic-rumination hypothesis is merely the latest attempt to explain the prevalence of depression. There is, for example, the “plea for help” theory, which suggests that depression is a way of eliciting assistance from loved ones. There’s also the “signal of defeat” hypothesis, which argues that feelings of despair after a loss in social status help prevent unnecessary attacks; we’re too busy sulking to fight back. And then there’s “depressive realism”: several studies have found that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality and are better at predicting future outcomes. While each of these speculations has scientific support, none are sufficient to explain an illness that afflicts so many people. The moral, Nesse says, is that sadness, like happiness, has many functions.

To say that depression can be useful doesn't mean it is always going to be useful. While it might explain patients reacting to an acute stressor, it can’t account for those whose suffering has no discernible cause or whose sadness refuses to lift for years at a time.
In the last section of the article Lehrer notes a number of studies indicating a correlation of depression with better artistic creativity and improved analytical abilities.

1 comment:

  1. Depression is a REM sleep disorder. All of this is explained in the many works of Ivan Tyrell and Joe Griffin, founders of the Human Givens approach to psychotherapy - based in the UK. In a nutshell, depression is result of excess rumination (caused by an unsolvable life problem). This in turn requires a lot of dreaming to discharge the emotion of the rumination, which exhausts the person and further impacts on that person's capacity to solve his problem.

    Tyrell and Griffin's work does not quite pass full muster to academics though it is pretty rigorous. This is because their objective was to influence therapists in the real world rather than to garner academic baubles and prestige.
    Go to to begin to find out more about this if you are so minded. As a fairly experienced Human Givens therapist who has quickly relieved serious depression in probably 100 client over the past few years, I know that they are on to something big. But it is amazing how much time it takes for their work to be accepted. Longer than they have on this planet (both men are in their 60s) - and so they have chosen to work outside academia.

    This is my own website -