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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

So There IS an Upside to Depression!

If you have not yet read the article my title refers to by Jonah Lehrer in last week's New York Times, you will not have become aware of the fact that he draws attention to research that indicates there may be an upside to depression.

Jonah Lehrer, a young scholar and author of two books: the recent How We Decide as well as the acclaimed Proust Was a Neuroscientist, also writes a highly intelligent blog called The Frontal Cortex and writes articles for publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Seed, The New Yorker, Nature, Wired, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He is also a Contributing Editor at Scientific American Mind and National Public Radio's Radio Lab.

Having established those rather impressive credentials, I'd like to draw your attention to his article about depression. In it, he refers to Darwin, highly prone to depression, who said “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me,” Darwin wrote and later remarked that it was his “sole enjoyment in life.”

Lehrer continues: "For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

"The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain."

He refers to researchers Andrews and Thomson who wondered "if rumination had a purpose. They started with the observation that rumination was often a response to a specific psychological blow" and who speculated that “even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand" life and that there "are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”

"This radical idea — the scientists were suggesting that depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit — has a long intellectual history." Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Milton and Keats were all fore-runner of the concept. But Andrews' and Thomson's "challenge was to show how rumination might lead to improved outcomes, especially when it comes to solving life’s most difficult dilemmas."

They conclude, at least for now: “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful,” Thomson says. “Sometimes, the symptoms can spiral out of control. The problem, though, is that as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”

For Thomson, this new theory of depression has directly affected his medical practice. “That’s the litmus test for me,” he says. “Do these ideas help me treat my patients better?”

Read the entire article here. And if you got this far, and actually read the article, you may find Lehrer's answer to criticism he received for parts of it - by psychiatrists - of interest as well here.

There is so much more in this fascinating article than what I have reproduced here. I recommend you read it - not because I concur with all it says, but because it allows us a glimpse (via science) to a world not ruled by drugs, and a world that looks at difficult times in a person's life, even when that implies depression, as times through which one can grow and learn and evolve.

Does that mean we need a purpose, a meaning in life? What Darwin referred to as his work? In Darwin's case his work was clearly his purpose and meaning, his work gave his life significance in his own eyes. And that was why it gave him enjoyment.

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