Jonah Lehrer’s story on “Depression’s Upside” has created quite a kerfuffle. The idea he explores — that depression creates an analytic, ruminative focus that generates useful insight — sits badly with quite a few people. It’s not a brand-new idea, by any means; as Jonah notes, it goes back at least to Aristotle. But Jonah (who — disclosure department — is a friend; plus I write for the Times Magazine, where the piece was published) has stirred the pot with an update drawing from (among other things) a very long review paper published last year by psychiatric researchers Paul Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson.
The story and the flap it raised has made me examine my own thinking about this notion.
I’ve now read the piece and much of the reaction several times and have, ah… ruminated on it quite a bit. The subject hits close in several ways. I’ve written quite a bit about depression and have suffered its teeth a few times.And this analytic-ruminative theory — which I’m going to call ART here, for the sake of efficiency and fun — relates strongly to many of the issues I explored in my Atlantic article, “The Orchid Child,” and will explore further in The Orchid and the Dandelion.
The article struck many commenters and readers as on-target. Evolutionary types seemed to like it. People who had experienced depression seemed roughly split, some agreeing that it generates light and others saying it just throws you down a black hole. Some commenters raised sharp objections . The most thoughtful critiques came from Neurocritic (another favorite of mine, though I don’t know him) and Tufts University psychiatrist Ronald Pies. Lehrer responded with grace, poise, and intelligence, both at other people’s blogs and in multiple posts at his own.
Yet that hardly resolved the tension, much less the question.I’ve always viewed the ART model skeptically myself, at least as wielded broadly. It doesn’t fully jibe with my own experience, with the experience of some depressed people I know well, or with what I’ve seen in depression studies. Yet I think it has some merit and legitimate insight. Examining it can shed light on what depression really is (and isn’t).
It’s complexicated. I’ll take it in sections.
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