Jonah Lehrer has an article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine entitled “Depression’s Upside.” He begins with an anecdote about Charles Darwin, who suffered from, variously, “fits,” “excitements,” “flurries,” “air fatigues,” “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” — all Victorian classifications for depression. (Flatulence?) More recognizable in today’s vocabulary of mental illness is this sentiment from Darwin: “[I] am not able to do anything one day out of three.” Once he even remarked, “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”
Lehrer uses Darwin as a jumping off point to discuss the potential evolutionary benefits of depression, i.e. “depression’s upside.” He cites two psychologists, Paul Andrews and Andy Thomson, whose work suggests that rumination — the mental habit of turning over and over a particular thought or problem, the way livestock chew and rechew their food — yields a clarity of thought that enhances one’s understanding of the world. As Lehrer puts it, summarizing their view, “If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless rumination — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.”
This is not a controversial statement, and yet Andrews and Thomson’s work has earned them critics who note, correctly, that depression is not always interchangeable with sadness or melancholy. There is a bitter clarity that heartbreak and tragedy can bring — sadness borne largely out of circumstances like grief or death — but, as Peter Kramer (the author of Listening to Prozac) says, “Depression is not really like sadness. It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”
It’s a fascinating article, and Lehrer does a fine job making these different theories and studies accessible and easy to understand. He articulates a bothersome riddle — how can something so awful still yield, in scientific terms, an evolutionary benefit? Or, in religious terms, how can God redeem such suffering? Can something so painful ever be a gift? Lehrer writes,
To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.