Depression’s Upside

Lehrer, J. (2010). “Depression’s Upside.” The New York Times. Retrieved on 29 June, 2010.

Summary: Depression is a disorder that has long been associated with the anguished artist who is fixated on his work. The gloomy state of mind may have an upside and, according to research by psychiatrists Andy Thomson and Paul Andrews, it is this ability to be more attentive to our problems. Approaching the issue of depression from an evolutionary perspective, they believe it is not likely for the brain to adapt “pointless programming bugs”. Unlike other mental illnesses which occur in small percentages of the population, approximately 7 percent of people are afflicted with depression every year. Despite, the evolutionary problem which results from lowering one’s sexual libido (and limiting the urge for reproduction), depression could be viewed as an adaptive to the stressors of one’s environment. Neuroscientists in China observed a spike in functional connectivity in the brain allowing depressed people to be more analytical and able to stay focused on a difficult problem longer. The research of psychologist Joe Forgas, found that depressed people were better at judging accuracy of rumors, less likely to stereotype strangers, and had better recall memory. Rumination, the endless loop of chewing a problem over, that can occur with depression is perhaps linked to the creative process because both are tied to persistence. Good work is produced through endless critiques of the original. The mere presence of a difficult problem however may also be the source of such depression. Andrews points to the “depressed affect” where a problem, even a difficult puzzle, can ignite the same focus which leads to feelings of sadness. According to Andrews, the “anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy”.

Arguments against these conclusions point out that these findings do not take into account depression which is not caused by an acute stressor such as depression which is chronic and may be hereditary. While depression may have many functions, the idea that the depressive state could be serving a purpose is controversial. This notion claims that drugs are not helping us deal with the causes of depression, only removing the pain. The relapse rate of those only on antidepressants is 76 percent within a year compared to just 31 percent relapse if given cognitive talk therapy.

The pain caused by depression is usually described as a downward cycle. While this study attempts to show the positive benefits that can arise from our brain being in overdrive, it seems a dangerous proposition to remain in that state for too long. Just like a car being unable to shift gears once a steep hill has been ascended, prolonged rumination may have its purpose but only if one can stop the cycle when it is no longer serving that purpose.

Even if depression can allow the brain to focus for a prolonged time on a difficult problem, fixation would clog one’s working memory from being free to process other things. Additionally, losing one’s normal sleeping and eating habits further diminishes the energy needed to fuel the brain’s activity. Depression would appear to result in a form of neglect not conducive to optimal brain activity and thus not work in the interest of solving a problem. At what point do the benefits of an intensified focus outweigh the other symptoms of depression?

Conceptual Design: If antidepressants impede patients from addressing their problems then this is a warning to perhaps an overly medicated population. Users may wish to reevaluate the solution provided by taking pills as psychologist may opt to recommend more cognitive therapy. Drug companies, on the other hand, stand to gain more by refuting this research and leaving the source of the pain in tack or else there is no problem to solve. Additionally, designer may wish to take heart in any depressive state they encounter as natural growing pains in developing their work.

Interaction Design: In creating a product that requires a lot of focus but may not be very difficult (such as something repetitive), introducing a difficult problem at the onset may help trigger the depressed affect. Knowing that this might put a user’s working memory on overload and that a difficult problem triggers a depressive state, limiting the number of tasks involved at any particular stage of interaction is also important if such focus is required.

Interface Design: Designers might consider how depression is linked to the environment which can alter users’ ability to be more analytical or have better recall memory. Designers of tests who want better performance from their test-takers may want to induce a gloomy state by shutting out natural sunlight and playing somber music.