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 memory, attention 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!
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