Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, March 5, 2010 11:02 pm

“If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lex @ 11:02 pm

It is fitting that Charles Darwin is among the historical figures known or strongly suspected to have suffered from depression, because the existence — and persistence — of depression in the human species poses an interesting evolutionary question:

If depression is hereditary, and it tends to manifest itself in lack of interest in sex and even in suicide — two factors with a negative correlation to reproduction — then what evolutionary advantage has been associated with it that has allowed it to persist at a fairly high rate among humans? A recent Sunday Times article examines that question:

The new research on negative moods, however, suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose.

Now, where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” This helps explain why test subjects who are melancholy — Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer — are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers. …

The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”

And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence — people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”

Are depression and creative gifts really connected, or, as the article puts it, “Does … despondency help us solve anything?” Research strongly suggests so, the article says. And if so, must the Cursed Creatives among us suffer to exploit their gifts, or does treating depression neuter their creativity? The article doesn’t really say. I expect the answer varies. I do know that some very talented, very disturbed people don’t get professional help because they believe (or, in some cases, have learned from experience) that treating the disturbance stills the gift. For them, on an emotional and psychological level and possibly on a neurological level as well, the creativity and the curse can no more be separated than can conjoined twins with a single heart.

Another quasi-related thought: Not all writers think of themselves as creative. For these writers, writing isn’t, or isn’t always, a problem to be solved. It’s something else — something they do because they can’t not do it, because it’s how they process their experiences or interact with their environment or just because they believe they’d die if they didn’t. If writers such as these who have mental illnesses are successfully treated, what happens to them if they are no longer driven to use what had been their main coping skill? Do they no longer need that skill, or are they just as vulnerable but now defenseless? And is there any way to know whether they’ll be safe before we disarm them, as it were?

Lots of questions, few answers.

1 Comment

  1. Great post.

    It’s true that Taibbi appears to have been recently treated for manias and neuroses. His latest Rolling Stone effort blows and his blog has become boring.

    Or perhaps intimate knowledge of Goldman Sachs has rendered him stupified.

    Comment by Fec — Saturday, March 6, 2010 10:22 am @ 10:22 am

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