Episode 11: Prevailing Theory
Today's is the second episode in the nine-part series "How Purpose Heals Depression," a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today's show we look at how depression is labeled a biological, social, or psychological thing; but rarely an existential one.
Today’s is the second episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, called “Prevailing Theory,” we look at how depression is labeled a biological, social, or psychological thing—but rarely an existential one. Let’s begin!
How does prevailing theory define depression? Essentially it calls it an illness with biological, psychological, and/or social roots. More a hodgepodge of contradictory ideas than a coherent theory, it raises essential questions without making a diligent enough effort to answer them. How, for instance, can a given person’s depression be called biological by one clinician and psychological by another? More tellingly, how can these two conflicting diagnoses not cause the pair of clinicians to chat, compare notes, and think through whether the depression they are witnessing is more an apple or more a pear?
Robert Klitzman, in his book In a House of Dreams and Glass: Becoming a Psychiatrist, describes one corner of this odd world, the corner that psychiatrists inhabit. Here two entirely different and discrepant explanations, one biological and one psychological, are routinely provided to explain the exact same phenomenon. For instance, a woman visits the young intern Klitzman for treatment of her depression. After the initial consultation, Klitzman meets with each of his two supervisors, describes his new patient, and asks for their advice. Provided with a few-sentence description of the woman, the first supervisor, biologically-inclined, asserts that the patient’s problem is biological. The second supervisor, psychologically-inclined, asserts that the patient’s problem is psychological. Klitzman shakes his head and goes off to pursue both courses of treatment simultaneously, hoping that he is not Alice and that this is not Wonderland.
Both the biological and psychological approaches are suspect since both posit an unreal world, completely at odds with human experience, in which people do not get depressed for good reasons having to do with their experience of life and their upsetness about the facts of existence. Rather, people only get depressed because something in them is flawed or broken. In this unreal view, depression of any significant magnitude is always an illness and never a reaction to being dropped, willy-nilly, into a world not of their making which they are forced to make mean something.
It is my contention that depression in creative people is best thought of as a meaning crisis caused by chronic and persistent upsetness, irritation, anger, and sadness about the facts of existence and about life’s apparent lack of meaning. Anyone who examines the facts of existence and makes personal meaning, as creative people do, opens herself up to this depression. Another group of people are also vulnerable to these same meaning crises, a group among whom many creators will number themselves. These are our harmed children, now grown up, who have endured brain changes because of unfortunate childhood experiences.
We have interesting evidence, drawn from the rat and monkey worlds, about the actual structural changes you can effect on the brain by abandoning, neglecting, or abusing an infant. If you harm an infant rat or monkey in certain ways, you not only produce immediate responses but you also produce structural brain changes that last a lifetime. Their neurons change, the way they secrete hormones changes, their biology changes.
To analogize to human beings, the child who is harmed is likely to become biologically altered in such a way that life becomes dark and meaning crises loom everywhere. This infant grows into an adult with a toxic brain structure, neurons at the ready to overreact to stress and to see the glass not as half-empty but as completely empty and impossible to fill.
Charles Nemeroff explained in “The Neurobiology of Depression”:
We conducted a series of experiments in which neonatal rats were neglected. We removed them from their mothers for brief periods on about 10 of their first 21 days of life, before allowing them to grow up (after weaning) in a standard rat colony. As adults, these maternally deprived rats showed clear signs of changes in CRF-containing neurons, all in the direction observed in depressed human patients. Studies of monkeys, which as primates more closely resemble humans, yielded similar results. Newborns and their mothers encountered three foraging conditions for three months after the babies’ birth: a plentiful, a scarce, and a variable food supply. The variable situation evoked considerable anxiety in monkey mothers, who became so anxious and preoccupied that they basically ignored their offspring. As our model predicts, the neonates in the variable-foraging condition were less active, withdrew from interactions with other monkeys, and froze in novel situations.
What does this imply? That a creative person is vulnerable to meaning crises, and hence depression, by virtue of her relationship to meaning, and that she will have significant added vulnerabilities if she was harmed in childhood: if she was molested, like Virginia Woolf, raised in a frigid religious environment, like Van Gogh, witness to the murder of his father, like Dostoevsky. As we look at the steps necessary to maintain meaning and reduce depression, we will have to provide additional strategies that take into account the harm that far too many creators have experienced in childhood. Most creative people will have to contend with this dual challenge: they will need to keep meaning afloat and they will also have to make good use of their remaining brain plasticity to help them heal from any traumas they experienced in childhood.
That ends today’s show. Tune in next week for another episode in the “How Purpose Heals Depression” series. To learn more about this subject, please take a look at my book The Van Gogh Blues, which just appeared in paperback from New World Library. To subscribe to “your purpose-centered life,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at [email protected]; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!