An article appeared this last week in the New York Times, that attempted to answer the question: why is depression still in the gene pool if it leads to despair and even suicide? I was very interested in the piece because I’ve suffered from depression since adolescence, and believe me, it’s been no picnic. The author cited some authorities that have been using evolutionary psychology to come up with an explanation of why and how depression might have some role in helping human beings adapt to the stresses of being human. The main idea proposed was that mental rumination during depression somehow helps with problem-solving, it focuses the mind, it keeps it from getting distracted.
These days with so much of the attention in psychiatry being given to the use of medications (I take three different antidepressants myself and am grateful for them), there is less attention given to psychotherapy and to the actual problems that depressed people face. And yet there is research suggesting that cognitive psychotherapy can sometimes be as effective as antidepressants. This suggests that the process of being HELPED with one’s problems, can speed up the ruminative processes of the depressed person, and help them more quickly to reach solutions to the life problems that they face. I think, though, that there are forms of depression that lead nowhere (e.g. chronic depression that lasts for years, severe depression leading to suicide). I like the distinction that a psychoanalyst named Emmy Gut made between “productive” and “unproductive” depression. Productive depression eventually leads to some kind of resolution or closure, even to transformation of the individual personality.
It may be with this kind of depression that rumination serves a positive function in helping the person meet and surmount difficult problems and complex situations. Depression in this context, then, represents another form of neurodiversity, which should be celebrated rather than “cured”. I realize that this can be hard for people to accept, especially those (such as myself) who have been through the ravages of depression. But there is also research linking depressed individuals with creativity, so this capacity for rumination, may be linked in some as yet undiscerned way to the creative mind.
I’m thinking of a book like “Notes from the Underground” by Dostoyevsky, that seems to be a reflection of the ruminative mind of a depressed person, and at the same time, a brilliant work of art. The message seems to be that depression exists to transcend it in some way. Perhaps it is the spur that keeps us growing and changing. Is it better to have a boring life without depression, or one full of Sturm und Drang with depression? I leave that question for you to ruminate on.
For more information about the neurodiversity of depression, see my book The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain (published in hardcover as Neurodiversity).
This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
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