Can depression be a beneficial thing?
(According to) Andrews and Thomson, depression alters thinking and behavior in beneficial ways. For instance:
*People in the grip of depression tend to ruminate, to turn an issue over and over in the mind. If they’re ruminating on why they can’t get a date, that might seem bad—since it keeps the person depressed. But this way of thinking, note the scientists, is “often highly analytical.” That can be useful, producing solutions to what tipped the person into depression in the first place, not to mention “Eureka!” moments such as discovering fire. Evidence: people who felt depressed before tackling challenging math problems tend to score higher than happier test-takers, Andrews and Thomson reported in a 2007 study.
*Depression tends to focus thinking. That 5HT1A receptor, it turns out, also supplies neurons with fuel, allowing them to fire without flagging. That includes neurons in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which have to fire continuously to keep the mind from wandering. (It’s an attention circuit.) Focused thinking, like analytical thinking, might help someone overcome depression.
*Depression tends to make sufferers seek isolation, and keeps them from deriving pleasure from sex, food, or life itself. Obviously this can be crippling (and even fatal) to the sufferer. But it may also be adaptive: these behaviors foster the kind of focused and deliberative thinking that might solve the problem that triggered the depression in the first place. Evidence: a 2006 study found that when people suffering from depression engage in expressive writing, which forces them to focus on their troubles, their depression tends to lift sooner than otherwise. A 2008 study reached the same conclusion.
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