Are Depressed people Creative – Breaking the Myths

Depression may have been an adaptive trait that helped our ancestors survive, but has turned into a maladaptive trait for many unfortunate souls. Recently, there has been a surge of articles recently which claim that creative people have a higher tendency to be depressed and depressed people are creative. There is a push to highlight a definitive link between mental illness and genius traits. There is some truth to this assertion, but, it is the not the complete story.

The Evolution of Depression as an Adaptive Trait

Evolutionary reasons for enhancement and carry over of any trait is plausible when the traits allow individual or species to better adaption to the environment thereby improving survival of the species. There is some indication that depression may have been a useful trait in the past to our ancestors. Traits that can be selected due to their adaptive nature and may be suitable for one environment can get passed over and become maladaptive in different environments. On this basis, my premise for the argument is that depression started off as an adaptive trait, but, later developed in population clusters as maladaptive trait. Most of the depression we see around us is maladaptive. Some of it like suicidal depression is severely maladaptive as it works against the Darwinian “Survival of the Fittest”.

 

Dr. Andrew Miller and Dr. Charles Raison write in their research paper that depression started off an advantageous trait. As per their theory, the same genes that were responsible for depression were also responsible for strengthening the immune system. It was found that “NPY” gene was responsible for inflammation (an immune process helpful in fighting off infections). The same gene was found to be statistically present in people more prone to depressive episodes. These genes were passed over from one generation to other as they served a large purpose i.e better immunity. The research paper also theorizes that acute and short-term stress can lead to depression but the same stressors can also kick-starts the immune system. On this basis, depression may have been a recovery biomarker for our ancestors.There is another possible casual relationship which may have led to a non-genetic trait pass-over. In times of stress and adversity, some individuals are predisposed to develop

There is another possible casual relationship which may have led to a pass-over of new developed adaptive traits. In times of stress and adversity, some individuals are predisposed to develop depression-like symptoms. In some cases (not all), depression can lead to productive solitude, increase in creativity and enhanced intuitive ability. The productive solitude would have provided these individuals asymmetrical advantage in terms of informational strategies to cope with a developing adversarial conditions. Research has shown that people in depressed mode are better at solving social dilemma problems. As such, the informational asymmetry would have enabled few of these clusters to become Hyperforecasters, increasing the survival rates of the proximate cluster. In turn, these stressors enabled traits would have got passed down to next generation.

It is plausible that creative individuals may have been depressed, leading to possible genius creativity.

Creativity means different things to different people, so, let us first upfront define creativity. Creativity is the conscious expression of your imagination. It is taking intuitive ideas into conscious awareness. Imagination is a small part of creativity. Imagination can lead to rumination and rumination applied to negative contexts, or negative problems can be debilitating for the person.  Creativity, on the other hand, is engaging with the idea/imagination and giving shape to it so that one can consciously feel it and engage with it. Artists are creative, movie actors are creative, entrepreneurs may be creative, children are creative. Creativity involves some form of pursuit mixed with an action orientation.

Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Rumination means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting.” – Source – Psychology Today

There is a definite link between depression and creativity as recent brain research is evidently highlighting. Depressed people tend to be more imaginative or ruminating, and imaginative people have a tendency to get depressed easily than others. However, only a small sample of the depressed people become creative. A majority of the depressed people will go into a negative spiral unable to recover from it without help. As we will discuss later in the article, depression has a debilitating effects on a person’s will, resolve, motivation, and memory. Once one finds themselves in this zone, no creative expression can occur. Imagination is influenced by multiple factors, most significant of which is a concept called “Latent Inhibition.”

 

What is Latent Inhibition

Latent inhibition is a technical term used in classical conditioning to refer to the observation that a familiar stimulus takes longer to acquire meaning (as a signal or conditioned stimulus) than a new stimulus. – Source – Wikipedia

As humans, we perceive, extract and synthesize information from our environment to adapt to the environment. Each of us does not extract, perceive, and integrate information in the same way. The process is unique from person to person which is significantly influenced by our past experiences or cultural frame of mind.

Our habitual perceptive range also limits the stimuli that will be extracted by us from the environment. E.g., a law enforcement person may see a person loitering around as suspicious and may also notice that the person is nervous which adds to his assertion and helps formulate a subsequent response. A routine passerby, however, may just perceive a person loitering without noticing the worried expression. The limiting filter that allows certain information to be amplified while another information to be inhibited is caused by an unconscious process called “Latent Inhibition.” The more familiar we become to the stimuli, the less new cues we tend to notice unless we actively and curiously search for new cues. While training people on a very exciting process called “Unconscious Deception Detection”, we successfully calibrate the latent inhibition levels and sometimes within seconds, the person notices, recognizes or recalls something that they ignored. The recall of additional cues significantly alters their perceptive range.

A high degree of “latent inhibition” indicates that we are habitual minds and are happy with our worldview being as static and familiar as possible. A low level of “latent inhibition” means that we notice much more than what we did before and what others do. With significant practice, people with high latent inhibition can notice micro-expressions on others faces, can see the finer details of a bird perched on a tree and even smell the additives that we never noticed in the old coffee flavor. There are pitfalls of this expanded perception. We can also mistake tracer lights in the sky as UFO’s, construct and build on conspiracy theories and become oversuspicious of our partners when we notice a new cue that we cannot rationalize.

I want to provide another great example that you will never forget. If you ever lost your keys and found them right where you looked many times, you just experienced an effect of “latent inhibition” process. Your cognitive stress level created “perceptual blanking” i.e., removing information that was altered after it was acquired because your latent inhibition to cues increased. Once you start relaxing down, the latent inhibition becomes standard and you can find the keys where you left them. 

 

The higher the latent inhibition, the more resistant one is to new ideas, new worldviews, new cues and the search function eliminates more than it adds. This process works at the unconscious level and is controlled by the “Unconscious Intuitive Algorithm”. Lower latent inhibition results in access to more range of stimuli, weakening the connection between routine stimuli and increasing the connection between unrelated stimuli.

Creativity requires Novelty i.e., something new. Lower latent inhibition leads to “Novelty” i.e., new concepts/new insights/new understanding of our environment and makes a person creative. The lower the latent inhibition to new stimuli, the more and novel information a person can extract from the stimuli and in some cases also become delusional.

Related – (Decreased Latent Inhibition Is Associated With Increased Creative Achievement in High-Functioning Individuals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, September 2003)

Swedish Study Tests Link Between Creativity, Mental Illness

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You will notice in the above quote that during the depressed phase creativity or expression of creativity reduces, but related research has shown that before creativity can occur, there is one more step we already discussed called “Rumination”. Rumination is the obsessive pursuit of an idea or thought. Applied to worries, rumination can lead one into downward spirals. Done for research and problem solving, it can make one come up with more novel concepts. It so happens that during the depressive phase, rumination level increases and if the context of rumina pro blem-solving solving, better synthesis occurs. Once the manic state commences, the synthesized novelty as a result of rumination now surfaces into our consciousness as an Aha. This incubation phase is onset by significantly reduced “Latent Inhibition” in which the subjects can make sense of disconnected, disparate and unrelated data into a new schema and come up with novel concepts/associations.

Novelty is the fundamental attribute of creativity. Not all imaginative people become creative but all creative people are imaginative. Intelligence is not EQ or IQ. It is a multi-dimensional concept that utilizes cognitive as well as embodied intelligence to enable predictions in our environment. Conventional psychology has a very narrow view of intelligence but, the core function of intelligence is prediction.

On this basis, depressed people have “Low Latent Inhibition” which results in them becoming possibly more imaginative. Some of these people may be able to bridge the gap between imagination and creativity. It is my firm assertion that Steve Jobs was depressed and had significantly low latent inhibition due to his early abandonment issues. Steve Jobs – The Orphan Heart

 

Functional and Structural Patterns of Depressed Brains

Functional (EEG) and Structural Scans (fMRI, SPECT) of individual brains can provide us a better understanding of what is occurring during maladaptive depression versus creative depression. The sub-cortical part of our brain generates Alpha, Theta and Delta brainwaves. The cortical parts generate Beta and Gamma brainwaves. In case of severe depression, it has been noticed that Theta and Delta Brainwaves amplitude is very high while Beta is under-activated. This is a significant indication that rumination is occurring during this period or the person is in sleep mode. In the case of creative individuals, Beta amplitude is higher than Alpha and the ratio is skewed differently. Apparently, the coherence between hemispheres is higher when Beta is higher than Alpha amplitude. Creative individuals have way higher hemispheric coherence than depressed individuals.

This article in Scientific American proposes that “Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted. In a region of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), neurons must fire continuously for people to avoid being distracted. But this is very energetically demanding for VLPFC neurons, just as a car’s engine eats up fuel when going up a mountain road. Moreover, continuous firing can cause neurons to break down, just as the car’s engine is more likely to break down when stressed. Studies of depression in rats show that the 5HT1A receptor is involved in supplying neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down. These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage, which may explain why the 5HT1A receptor is so evolutionarily important”

There is some indication that during intense rumination and creative thinking, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) actively fires, but, what the author fails to mention is that in depressed individuals the neurons shows high activation potential while experiencing a lack of blood flood to the Left PFC (measured by HEG). In creative individuals, The VLPFC continues to fire for a long time and is accompanied by high blood and oxygenation activity in PFC.

This topic requires another detailed post, but, one should note that creativity is about getting “Aha Insights” in our consciousness post unconscious synthesis of novel underlying frameworks. “Aha Insights” show up as a spike inactivation threshold in the right hemisphere followed by a sustained activation of the left hemisphere. Such creative activity also shows up as high oxygenation and blood flood in HEG analysis. Rumination without insightful output can actually become dangerous and individuals who experienced sustained rumination without an output channel can become delusional.

We need a more integrated understanding of depression gathering insights from neurology, physiology and psychology rather than propagate a single dimension point of view to unsuspecting readers.

Depression as a Maladaptive Trait

We have already considered the possibility that Depression may have been an adaptive trait that provided some advantage during survival situation to our ancestors. However, my premise is that the depression in our current environment is mostly maladaptive, some of it severely maladaptive.

Why is Depression debilitating for those who suffer from it ?

Depression mostly has a negative effect on those who unfortunately suffer from it. Clinical depression is considered common cold of the outpatient population. The most common type of depression in the population spectrum is Dysthymia. Dysthymia manifests as a depressed mood persisting for at least two years (one year for children or adolescents) that lasts for most of the day, occurs on more days than not, and is accompanied by at least two of the following symptoms:

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia,
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration or difficulty making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness.

Depression also reduces the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in making memories and emotions. Intelligence is about prediction and prediction requires recognition which requires memories. If your memories are getting affected, intelligence gets affected. As Dr. Mercola cites in his article “ How Depression Alters the Brain”. Depression can only be effectively diagnosed with a qEEG and a much larger spectrum of the society is depressed than are diagnosed.

There is a concept of Approach-Avoidance – Approach-avoidance activation without anterior asymmetry. As per this concept, a person tends to move towards or away from goals and interactions.If the “frontal asymmetry” in a qEEG (Quantitative Electroencephalograph) analysis shows “left lobe dominant asymmetry”, then the subject will move towards something (approach). If the “frontal asymmetry is right lobe dominant”, then, there is an avoidance preference and these people are great philosophers but poor innovators. I have used the above concept with entrepreneurs to increase their resolve, persistence and motivation level in executing tasks that they feel inhibited towards .The challenge with “frontal asymmetry with right lobe dominance” is that this sort of depression alters and damages the brain structure thereby reducing the ability of learning (acquisition and retention of knowledge), motivation and energy levels. 

 

Wherever HEG (Hemoencephalography) indicates reduced cerebral blood blow in the PFC (Pre-Frontal Cortex) and reduced temperature, there is a significant inhibition towards action orientation. Such people may be imaginative but rarely creative. They struggle to start things, they struggle even harder to finish tasks and mostly live in a vegetative state. The major challenge in chronic depression for people is a complete lack of will and motivation combined with a pattern of “Nothingness”. Nothingness creates an unproductive living being who cannot live a normal life. People having low cerebral blood flow (CBF) in the PFC (left) suffer from “Nothingness” and maybe imaginative but definitely cannot apply this imagination anywhere except perhaps writing books.

Depression increases the potential for creativity due to latent inhibition. Potential is not the same thing as capability or capacity. You have the potential of winning a lottery today, if you find yourself in the right place at the right time. However, the odds are against you. On this basis, we dispute the assertion that all depressed people are creative.

Depression is a severe problem that affects many unfortunate people in this world and psychologists and researchers must be careful not to create new stereotypes in pop-psychology where subjects refuse to seek medical help. The economic burden of depression can be measured and it has been found to have topped 200 Billion USD in the United States. There is insufficient data available from developing countries and the social and emotional costs of maladaptive depression cannot be measured even by sophisticated methods. If one is suffering from maladaptive depression, they should seek help as depression can be super resistant to introspection and will power. There are many who are not certified and licensed to diagnose and treat any medical conditions, so, one should seek out a medical professional.

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