Depression, Creativity and Leadership-Part 2

In Part 1 it was suggested that dwelling on repetitive thoughts can lead to useful reasoning and help with problem-solving. Another suggestion is that a depressed person may have a more realistic assessment of a situation. However, there are little data to support the notion that these cognitive features of major depression may aid in problem solving or creativity.

Previously, the example of Abraham Lincoln was used to raise the question as to whether he rose to greatness in spite of his apparent depression or alternatively was in some way aided by it. In reviewing arguments in favor of depression contributing to creativity or leadership, it was suggested that there are a number of challenges to the evolutionary viewpoint that depression might have desirable qualities.

Here in Part 2, again adapted from an article in Psychology Today, at least two kinds of cognitive traits have been taken to support some positive aspects of depression. They suggest that either the ruminations typical of depression, or a potentially more realistic assessment of situations, may have value in problem-solving.

Potential value of repetitive thoughts . . .

The notion that dwelling on repetitive thoughts may be useful has recently gained support from a study showing changes in brain networks associated with this activity (1). The “analytical rumination hypothesis” suggests that ruminations can lead to useful reasoning, first in a causal analysis and then in a problem-solving analysis. The implication is that ruminations can help a person come up with explanations and solutions for an unhappy event.

Counter-arguments would be that this view works best when depression seems tied to a particular trauma, and may more likely be a healthy response in a person who is sad after a specific upset; it is less clear how it might work in seemingly paralyzing severe depression, chronic depression, post-stroke depression, or mood disorders of old age (3).

Among those who study evolutionary psychology, there is an even split over whether rumination is adaptive; it suggests that supporters are more likely to be non-clinicians, while clinicians, who have witnessed patients who seem stuck in ongoing non-constructive circular thinking, are more skeptical (4).

We need bear in mind the distinction between sadness, and major depression, in which a despondent mood dominates one’s life for at least two weeks, and is associated with decreased functioning, cognitive changes, and a host of physical symptoms.

It might be that ruminations are more likely to be useful when one is sad, but that in major depression they are more likely to be circular and non-constructive. In major depression ruminations might be part of a constellation of cognitive changes which are generally unhelpful, like alterations in memoryattention and decision-making.

Realistic assessment of situations

A second argument as to how depression might be adaptive suggests that persons with depression benefit from what is known as “depressive realism.” In one often-cited study, depressed and non-depressed students were given problems on a computer and asked to what degree they felt their actions were related to a light flashing on the screen.

Non-depressed subjects tended to overestimate their responsibility when light flashing was frequent and considered desirable, and to underestimate it when lights were considered undesirable. Depressed persons had much more realistic assessments of the degree to which their actions were responsible for the lights flashing (5).

The degree to which depressive realism could play a role is not firmly established. One large analysis of available studies concluded that overall there was “a small depressive realism effect.” On the other hand, the authors noted that the findings were more likely to be positive in studies that lacked objective measures of realism and relied more on self-report (6).

In summary, reaching back to part 1 of this two-part series, depression’s ubiquity does not necessarily argue that evolution has favored it as an advantageous trait. Though it is an attractive idea, modern studies have had mixed results on whether there is a relationship between major depression and creativity.

The hypothesis that ruminations in depression lead to problem-solving is controversial, and may be of limited applicability. A second notion is depressive realism, but its effect is small and whether it is seen at all is highly dependent on the methodology of the studies.

It’s important to distinguish between sadness or depressed feelings in response to specific difficult experiences, and major depressive disorders. It seems possible that we have a built-in response to specific difficult experiences which sometimes can be of help in assessing problems and leading to solutions.

It also seems possible that some people such as Lincoln found ways to harness their distress and use it to spur a drive for achievement. But this is different from arguing that major depression is an often helpful state, or that any possible upside compensates for the suffering it involves.

As for me, my bouts with depression would have to produce a significant upside to adequately compensate for what I go through to get back to a state of normalcy. Thus far, only time, positive thought and medication help me get out of the clutches of depression. While in those clutches, however, I trust I don’t lose access to my inherent creativity. We all have it and it can be amazing!

References

1. Zhang, R. et al.: Rumination network dysfunction in major depression: a brain connectome study. Prog. Neur-Psychopharmacol and Biol. Psychiat. 98, March 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2019.109819

3. Lehrer, J.: Comments by Peter Kramer in ‘Depression’s Upside’, New York Times, February 25, 2010.

4. Kennair L.E.O., Kleppestø T.H., Larsen S.M., Jørgensen B.E.G. (2017) Depression: Is Rumination Really Adaptive?. In: Shackelford T., Zeigler-Hill V. (eds) The Evolution of Psychopathology. Evolutionary Psychology. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-60576-0_3

5. L.B. Alloy and L.Y. Abramson: Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser? J. Experimental Psychol. General 108: 441-485, 1979. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/528910/

6. Moore, M.T. and Fresco, D.M.: Depressive realism: a meta-analytic review. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 32: 496-509, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2012.05.004

Depression, Creativity and Leadership – Part 1

This post is adapted from an article in Psychology Today and is offered up so that we may understand more the relationship between creativity and depression.

The list of historical political and military figures who appear to have suffered from depression seems to be limitless, including such luminaries as Benjamin Disraeli and William T. Sherman, later notables such as Winston Churchill, writers over the decades (Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling), and modern celebrities (Jim Carrey, Eminem, Anne Hathaway).

Articles about the possible relation of depression to success in politics or the arts have taken two general views—that these people were able to overcome their depression and go on to greatness, or alternatively that something about their mood disorder aided them in the process.

Abraham Lincoln’s tendency toward what was then called “melancholy” was well known by his neighbors in New Salem, Illinois. In his mid-twenties, after a woman to whom he felt close died of typhoid, he led an isolated life, spent long periods of time alone in the woods with his gun, and wrote gloomy poetry. Though he occasionally sought merriment with his friends, he confided to one colleague that his mood was such that he dared not carry a knife.

Five years later in 1840, the young politician was so troubled that neighbors removed all the razors and sharp objects from his home. He requested help from a doctor and at one point sought pharmacologic relief with various medicines including sedatives, camphor, and mercury-based “blue mass” pills (The latter, which he later discontinued, contained roughly 100 times the modern EPA guidelines for mercury). 

Feelings of failure and doom, as well as fatigue interspersed with agitation and thoughts of death haunted him his whole life, even as he struggled with the great issues of his day, presided over the greatest crisis in the country’s history, and ultimately saved his nation (1).

In my own experiences with depression, I have also felt fatigue and agitation and some subdued fear. I have never, however, felt so much despair as to take my own life. Most often I have this overall sense of not wanting to do anything of significance even though I realize I need to do so. I just don’t care.

Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1969/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Source: Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1969 / Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

One article on Lincoln described three stages which he went through — fear, engagement, and transcendence — and argued that “Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering … Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work” (1).

Is there something amidst the suffering of depression that might be of positive value and lead to achievement. Let’s look at the evidence associating depression with creativity and attainment, and the argument that the ubiquity and evolutionary persistence of depression suggest that it might be useful.

Depression and creativity

The seductive notion that a depressed mood is associated with greatness goes back at least as far as Aristotle, who believed that “Great men are always of a nature originally melancholy” (2). The notion of the “neuroticgenius” plagued by anxiety and depression continues to this day. Not surprisingly, it has generated more modern studies of a possible relationship, which interestingly, when excluding bipolar disorder, have sometimes been negative.

Psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen found “a higher rate of mental illness, predominantly affective disorder, with a tendency toward the bipolar subtype” in a group of 30 writers compared to controls (3). Alternatively, a study of 40 writers, 40 musicians, and a similar number of controls found no differences in measures of mental illness and stress (4).

A 2020 study found that artists were more likely to have vulnerabilities such as tendencies toward anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as resources such as ego-resilience and hope, compared to non-artists (5). Modern studies, then, have shown mixed results about the possible relationship of depression and creativity.

The evolutionary argument for depression

Even though many of the features of depression such as fatigue, decreased appetite, and libido would seem to have negative evolutionary value, some have argued that its ubiquity—major depression has a past-year prevalence of about seven percent of American adults—suggests some evolutionary benefits.

During my own bouts with depression, I have definitely been fatigued but my appetite has usually not waned. My erratic libido doesn’t seem to know how to act during my still-transitioning-grieving stage. While I am trying to move on from Pam’s death, my finger still seems to be on the pause button more than I would like.

According to the article, even if depression is associated with greater adaptivity, it may be that it is not depression per se, but some other unknown trait to which it is genetically linked. Or it could be that depression had some value in a past age or some specific situation that is now less applicable. In that sense it is similar to sickle cell disease in modern Western society. All in all, it should not be a foregone conclusion that the ubiquity of depression means that it has been favored by evolution.

This post has been adapted from an article in Psychology Today by Wallace Mendelson, M.D.

In part two, we’ll look at aspects of depression that have been claimed to be helpful—ruminations leading to problem-solving, and “depressive realism.” We’ll also look at possible cognitive mechanisms by which depression might help with motivation in achieving our goals. Focus will be on major depression and the clinical features of bipolar disorder.

Portions of this post are adapted from Molecules, Madness, and Malaria: How Victorian Dyes Evolved Into Modern Medicines for Mental Illness and Infectious Disease.

References

1. Shenk, J.W.: Lincoln’s great depression. The Atlantic, October 2005. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/lincolns-great-depression/304247/  Accessed 2/28/21.

2. The Famous People: Enlightening quotes by Aristotle. https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/aristotle-116.php  Accessed 2/28/21.

3. Andreasen, N.C.: Creativity and mental illness: prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. Am. J. Psychiat. 144: 1288-1292, 1987. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3499088/ Accessed 2/28/21.