2 April 2017 2:54 PM (better living through chemistry)
This is your periodic reminder that depressive realism is a bunch of bunk. Depressive realism is the ill-defined notion that either depression is the correct and healthy result of seeing the world for what it is (this is tied up with the idea that intelligent people are or must be or somehow should be unhappy) or that depression somehow strips away the illusions people wrap themselves in and allows one to see the world as it is.
Lars von Trier's (whom you may remember as the gentleman who famously combined Willem Dafoe, a fox, autophagia, and the phrase ‘chaos reigns’ into a scene in his movie Antichrist) film Melancholia was written to just this theme. Von Trier heard from a therapist that depressed people act more calmly in disasters than others because they already expect the worst (whether this is true, I don't know. If it is, it could instead be that they are more prone to dissociation, which can itself make people more prone to post-traumatic stress disorder. It could also be an effect similar to increased suicide risk on some SSRIs; patients would really like to die, but don't have the energy to kill themselves, and sometimes their motivation is restored before their desire to live. A lack of panic could, similarly, be a lack of energy.) and wished to create a world in which terrible, crippling depression was the correct response: one in which the earth was destroyed. His protagonist not only becomes calm, almost serene, as the point of destruction grows closer and everyone else descends into panic and despair, but simply knows things with great detail for no reason at all, as if her melancholy was a telegraph wire into the universe. It's a beautifully made movie and you should watch it. You probably won't like it. I didn't like it, but I'm happy to have seen it since it is very well made as a film and I like to try and grasp the feelings and thoughts of people who think differently than I. It does an excellent job of portraying how depression feels from the inside, but not how it relates to reality.
There are two fundamental problems with the claims of depressive realism. The first is that in experiments depression adds a systematic bias rather than improving overall accuracy. Depressed people believe they have less control in situations. In situations where they actually do have less control, they're right more often. In situations where they don't, they're wrong. They consistently expect worse outcomes, so when games are rigged against them, their predictions are more correct, when games aren't rigged against them, they aren't. They expect others to work against them. When they actually are in a hostile social situation they're more correct, when they aren't, they aren't.
It is undeniable that healthy people are not exemplars of rational prediction. They overestimate their likely success and the amount of control they have over things. I have long said that humans are really bad at probability to anyone who will listen. However, we should be able to agree that replacing one systematic bias with another is not called realism.
Furthermore, it's not adaptive. Perhaps if you were in Lars von Trier's world you might argue that lying still doing nothing is a rational and healthy response to the world being swallowed up by a gas giant. My sympathies lie more with the people in Seveneves who went out with songs and concerts and fireworks when all surface life was destroyed. It doesn't really matter, because ‘the end of the world’ is not happening any time soon. Even if one will be dead from some terminal disease in six months, the rest of the world will still be there afterward and they can affect it before they go.
The types of behavior that depression brings about are not adaptive for dealing with the world. Certainly not an unfriendly and dangerous world. The symptoms of depression are almost identical to sickness behavior, a state that keeps animals still, inactive, away from others, and out of trouble. Depression may, in fact, be a healthy response to disease that has somehow become enacted continually. There are researchers pursuing the theory that depression might have a strong immune or inflammatory component. Depression is not a healthy response to the world, to culture, to troubles at work, and certainly not to having someone you don't like get elected.
The second problem with depressive realism is that depression causes cognitive impairment. It interferes with your memory. It makes it difficult to concentrate. It makes one's thoughts slow and fogged. It also, famously, distorts people's thoughts. A normal person may rate their level of control in a situation overly highly, but when presented with evidence to the contrary, the normal person is more likely to consider and reason through the evidence and change their mind than a depressed person is to similarly change their mind when given evidence that their appraisal of their control in a situation is overly low.
That makes the idea of depressive realism incredibly suspect. It's not impossible that the same condition could cause some large cognitive deficits and clarity in some other areas, but it's unlikely, and I would need a lot of really good evidence to believe it.
Depressive realism does ring true to a lot of depressed people, and there's an excellent explanation for that: the aforementioned cognitive impairments and the feedback from depressive behavior. Well, that and the well-known phenomena that depression is greedy. It will reach out and find or make reasons for its own existence. Someone, when in a non-depressed state, may recognize that they merely feel lonely. In a depressed state they might not just feel lonely, but believe that everyone hates them. Every bit of kindness they're shown can be forgotten, and any slight can be magnified and turned into more evidence. They might withdraw from their friends and acquaintances or be unpleasant to them, and use the way their friends respond to bolster the belief that they are hated. They could come to the conclusion that their feelings are simply a healthy and rational response to seeing a world where everyone hates them as it is, when instead they're seeing a grotesque caricature of a world their feelings and actions have influenced.
Why does this matter to me? Because embracing depressive realism, especially in its ‘folk’ forms, destroys people's lives. Not only is it false, it doesn't even have the decency to be one of the lies that ennobles us. People who fall prey to it, instead of questioning their preconceptions, take them as truth. They decide that the world or society just doesn't value original or creative people so they won't bother. They get the ridiculous idea in their head that they are the enemy of society for this or that reason. They think they must fail, and so fail by never trying. Intelligent people, like them, see the world and all its hollowness for what it is. Empathetic people, like them, see how cruel and empty our culture really is and understand that there's no way for a healthy, sane person to exist inside it in any state of happiness; they're the real sane ones, and you would need to be delusional to be happy in such a terrible world.
You could think of it as the evil twin of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: a learned pattern of thought optimized to make one less functional and more in thrall to one's disease.