Evolutionary (and writerly) advantages of depression?

Emma and I enjoyed the novelist Margaret Drabble’s recent observation that depression is useful “for stripping off ways of getting through life that prevent you from having to think.”

“Happy and buoyant don’t force you into action on the page,” Drabble (pictured, in an earlier era) told Daphne Merkin.

These kinds of arguments in favor of depression as a creative impetus — not uncommon from writers — tend to be greeted with wariness by mental health practitioners, who typically view depression, and the obsessive rumination that flows from it, as an affliction to be cured, in every case.

Yet some scientists are suggesting that depression — peculiarly prevalent for a mental disorder — is not a malfunction at all, but an evolutionary adaptation, a state of mind which can have debilitating effects, but also promotes highly analytical thinking.

Depressed people, they contend, tend to “dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.” A special depression receptor enhances focus, allowing “depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage.” Writing speeds the process:

if depressive rumination were harmful, as most clinicians and researchers assume, 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. However, the opposite appears to be true. Several studies have found that expressive writing promotes quicker resolution of depression, and they suggest that this is because depressed people gain insight into their problems.

From this perspective, depression is less a malfunction than “an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.”

Updated to add: A friend writes (and I agree): “Did you read Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf? She’s so astute about Woolf’s mental illness, and makes the point over and over that her depressive episodes got in the way of her work, and then killed her. I’m of course reacting to your post! (And am printing out the SA piece as I type.) I guess the thing there is…for some it can be adaptive, and for others (DFW) — really not.”

And a psychiatrist offers his insights: “While it is true that we view depression as an affliction to be cured, it is not true that we feel this should be done in every case. The key test in mental illness is the effect on day-to-day functioning including employment, study and relationships. In my practice if a client or relation of a client cannot demonstrate that there is an adverse effect on what is termed “functioning” (I know, very ugly term) then I don’t necessarily treat. If the client requests treatment at that point I don’t hold it back, but I won’t push it. This is the case with the majority of the people I work with too.”

Previously: Too far down: writing and the emotions, even Nobel Laureates get the blues, writers and depression, more on writers and depression (by Stephany Aulenback), and February haters unite.


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