Always look on the bright side of… depression

Following in the footsteps of the sagacious Monty Python, a recent New York Times Magazine article by Jonah Lehrer, “Depression’s Upside,” offers some nice insights to encourage us to not just run away, nor hunt down and kill, our dark and gloomy emotions.  Lehrer frames the discussion well.  However, the debate itself is fraught with assumptions about depression, creativity and the brain that I think are open to debate.

My overarching bone of contention comes with the assumption that depression is a “malfunction” of the mind.  The two poles of current psychiatric thinking are outlined as either depression must be medicated and eradicated, or that perhaps it has an upside—as trumpeted in the article in the form of enhanced cognitive acumen for problem solving.  The real counter-argument, not much made by psychiatry, is that depression might be a normal reaction to an abnormal world.

Lehrer writes, “For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness…”  Perhaps one “reason” is that modern life just isn’t working for the minds that have become victims and prisoners of their own self-created “reality.”   Perhaps the debate about whether depression is an illness or a potential survival mechanism misses the bigger point; perhaps the very mind that would deconstruct culture as we know it must be pathologized, medicated and marginalized (or reasoned with, pseudo-respected and sent back to the front) because it is a threat to the very culture that is making us all so collectively unhappy.

The article explores the notion of ruminative thinking, seeking a positive spin on it.  Again, what is missed in the debate is the possibility that the human mind is either like a colander (in which case nothing remains to nourish or allow us to hold onto good feelings and make them last) or a bowl (in which case we can contain our sadness as well as our happiness).  All the debate seems to center around whether the glass is half full or half empty, neglecting the importance of having a glass in the first place.

In fact, quoting David Foster Wallace, the article describes depression as a “bottomless emotional vacuum and sponge.”  I’ll leave the academics to have their debate, but if you find yourself wrestling with the beast of depression, you might want to consider a focus on solidifying the self, rather than focusing on the contents of an always-drained vessel.

Now as to how one might “solidify the self,” I posit that parenting is a potential path to do just that.  Rise to it, give even though you don’t much feel like it and embrace its pain and the angst as productive suffering and you may find, as I have, that parenting in and of itself, can be a path toward greater happiness and freedom to actually live in the moment.  And even if this fails to bring you happiness, your child or children will have benefited from your efforts, which at least will then not have been pure futility.

Although it is later dismissed as poetry and not science, Lehrer quotes Keats as an advocate of suffering as part and parcel of the literary life, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”  I say toss the science and keep Keats.  It’s not that suffering makes an artist, it’s that life is about soul-making, and art and parenting alike are suffering-rich paths for soul-making.

If we pay others to do our parenting and medicate our appropriate sadness, we block our soul-making.  When we live soulless in a soulless world what can we expect other than depression?

The article gets fancy in talking about the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, but again this is old-school thinking:  illness as location, location, location; instead, I would suggest that pain and healing alike are based on relationship, relationship, relationship.  Relationships between neurons is where the real action is in the brain; likewise in life, where community, love, friendship and particularly parenting represent relationships that can either be depressing or healing.  As a therapist, I have learned that an authentic relationship is what activates a natural healing process, allowing therapist and client to learn and grow together.

And even when it comes to brain location, the prefrontal cortex (seen to be particularly active in depressed people) is also a region associated with intuition, appreciation of things like music and generally good feelings of connection.  Maybe it’s the connecting brain striving like mad to connect, that scratches at its confines like mice in glass tanks—trying to make a real connection when all that’s offered is clinical observation.  Maybe the seemingly depressed brain is a potentially happy brain discouraged because it has no one to talk to.   To feel loved is to feel understood; depressed people all too often feel isolated and not at all understood.  And being told to take a pill may be accepted as pain relief, but also disappointing like a kid who needs their tantrum tolerated and not bought off with candy.  On the meds point the article at hand talks about how meds mostly lead to relapse, being less effective than talk therapy over the long run.  It also points out that meds have a way of getting people to just deal with crappy lives, but do not support people to make real changes.

If there is no particle independent of an observer (as seen in quantum physics), there is no depression independent of a culture in which that depression occurs.  Absurd as it seems, if one was supposed to want to die, or stay in bed in a world of lies and cruelty, then a “depressed” person would be re-envisioned as a normal or even healthy person.

And just because depression can be traced back to Plato and the melancholy of humors, still leaves us grasping at the fog of pre-history to imagine how or if depression existed in the age before culture, civilization and socially constructed power-hierarchies.

There is good solid evidence emerging that yoga and mindfulness meditation are effective for depression.  These techniques activate the prefrontal cortex, and they also thicken the insulating blanket in the brain between terror and enlightenment, between the primitive brain and the very prefrontal cortex that allows dreaming and distinguishes us from the other animals (the only biological relatives on the pre-frontal cortex front being some primates and whales).

It is our ability to dream that has allowed us to create myths (which allow us to create culture), and the myths that we have created are depressing.  In my view it’s that simple:  we need to awaken from the myth that we consider inexorable “reality” and dare to dream for ourselves, to see for ourselves and to re-envision happiness not as achievement but as relatedness—a return to a feminine principle of connection and compassion, but in balance with order and thought—an attitude of parenting, or caring, toward all our kids, each other and our unified world from rocks to air.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “Always look on the bright side of… depression”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I appreciate your take on this topic. I am particularly fascinated by this line: “there is no depression independent of a culture in which that depression occurs.” I agree that we are a culture overly focused on quick fixes that treat symptoms rather than root causes and that mindfulness can indeed help us to understand and deal with these causes. My trouble come when I connect to the cause, but cannot figure out how to alleviate it. Perhaps that means I have more work to do.

  2. krk Says:

    I agree with your philosophies on depression, but typically I am not depressed.
    I think there are cases where medication might be essential. I feel uneasy that
    your message may be misconstrued by one who suffers with depression.
    To medicate or not to medicate that will become the question of this century.

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