The cognitive benefits of sadness

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2011

Jonah Lehrer at Wired has been looking into recent research into depression, and wondering whether it isn’t in fact a sort of evolutionary advantage.

The study itself was simple: A large group of subjects ranging from healthy to clinically depressed played a decision-making task on a computer. Their goal of the task was to hire the best applicant in a simulated job search. Each applicant was assigned a monetary value – some were much better than others – and presented in random order to the subjects.

While this task might seem somewhat arbitrary, the scientists note that it closely resembles a common everyday dilemma. It doesn’t matter if we’re shopping for clothes or going on dates — it’s often unclear when we’ve explored enough options, when we should stop searching and just make a damn decision. Furthermore, this task was designed so that it has a known optimal strategy, with the best decision-makers sifting through a certain number of alternatives.

Here’s where things get interesting: depressed patients approximated the optimal strategy much more closely than non-depressed participants did. The main problem with healthy subjects is that they proved lazy, unwilling to search through enough applicants. Those with depression, on the other hand, were much more willing to keep on considering alternatives, which is why they performed far better on the task. While this study comes with many caveats, it remains an interesting demonstration that depression, at least in specific situations, seems to enhance our analytical skills, making us better at focusing on social dilemmas.

It’s a very seductive idea for anyone who has ever experienced clinical depression (which I have and still do), but a decade of hanging around on the internet has made me leery of what I think of as “wish-fulfilment science” – these are bits of science journalism, usually psychological diagnoses, that make you feel that your particular affliction actually makes you a superior snowflake rather than simply a special one.

(For an extreme version of such, see Gary Westfahl’s earnest but extraordinarily ill-advised Aspergers confessional at Locus Online; “fans are Slans”, indeed. It’s one thing to “own” your afflictions, but very much another to claim they put you in the evolutionary vanguard.)

But as Lehrer points out, the prevalence of depression suggests there must be some evolutionary benefit to it, and my own experiences of rumination match up strongly with what he’s discussing, with respect to obsessing over social dilemmas and so forth. Does that make depressed people somehow “better” than everyone else? I don’t think so; the price is pretty high, and the insights gained into oneself and the world aren’t necessarily the sort of insights that make it any easier to sleep at night. (Quite the opposite, in fact.)

That said, I’ve always refused pharmacological treatments for it… partly because I’ve seen what antidepressants have done to people I’ve known for years (I don’t see chronic anxiety, character change and mood swings as a “cure”, I’m afraid), but mostly because, as Tennessee Williams put it, I worry that killing my demons might kill my angels as well.


Fractal market movements predict deep economic depression just ahead

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2010

It’s a great time to be a prophet of economic doom, because everyone’s still smarting badly enough from the last suckerpunch to take the threat of a groin-kick very seriously. And if you want a really bleak prediction, Robert Prechter’s ananlysis of fractal patterns in the market movements of the 1930s and 40s implies that the groin-kick will be delivered by an elephant wearing concrete boots [via TechnOccult]:

Originating in the writings of Ralph Nelson Elliott, an obscure accountant who found repetitive patterns, or “fractals,” in the stock market of the 1930s and ’40s, the theory suggests that an epic downswing is under way, Mr. Prechter said. But he argued that even skeptical investors should take his advice seriously.

“I’m saying: ‘Winter is coming. Buy a coat,’ ” he said. “Other people are advising people to stay naked. If I’m wrong, you’re not hurt. If they’re wrong, you’re dead. It’s pretty benign advice to opt for safety for a while.”

[…]

For a rough parallel, he said, go all the way back to England and the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720, a crash that deterred people “from buying stocks for 100 years,” he said. This time, he said, “If I’m right, it will be such a shock that people will be telling their grandkids many years from now, ‘Don’t touch stocks.’ ”

The Dow, which now stands at 9,686.48, is likely to fall well below 1,000 over perhaps five or six years as a grand market cycle comes to an end, he said. That unraveling, combined with a depression and deflation, will make anyone holding cash “extremely grateful for their prudence.”

Prechter’s analysis isn’t very popular, naturally.

The “mathematics don’t work,” Mr. Acampora said, because such a big decline would imply that individual stocks would need to trade at unrealistically low levels. Furthermore, he said, “I don’t want to agree with him, because if he’s right, we’ve basically got to go to the mountains with a gun and some soup cans, because it’s all over.”

Still, on a “near-term” basis, he said, “We’re probably saying the same thing.”

There’s a deep emotional component to Acampora’s response, there – the same one that keeps most of us from considering the real worst case scenarios. Caesar hears only what is pleasing unto Caesar, perhaps… but note that Acampora has shifted his own personal holdings to cash in the short term, so grim times are likely to be on the cards one way or the other.

But Doug Rushkoff, typically enough, sees an opportunity to build a better system on the ruins of the old:

Yes, this is really it. The beginning of a true end-of-cycle economically.

If you own “stocks,” use these bounces to get out completely. If you have to park your money somewhere, consider yourself lucky you have money to park.

The object of the game for those who actually have capital is not how to grow it, but how to keep it. Capital has driven our economy since 1300, and the recent bull market was the end of a cycle that began in the mid-1700′s.

The fact that it is ending is not the end of the world at all. It just means that there’s a whole lot of money out there with no place to go. People can’t find a place to park their money because there’s more money looking for investment than there is stuff to invest in.

And that’s because we’re finally in a technological era where great innovations are more about reducing the need to spend time, resources, and energy than they are about increasing it. iPads aside, of course.

Given the choice, I’ll take Rushkoff’s vision of the future, please. Will we make that choice for ourselves, and carry it through? I guess that’s down to us.


Depression may be evolution’s way of telling us to think things over

Tom Marcinko @ 30-08-2009

hello“Mental disorders should generally be rare,” state researchers Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. ” — why isn’t depression?” It doesn’t seem to be a function of aging and culture, yet prescription drugs for it help keep pharmaceutical companies afloat.

There is another possibility: that, in most instances, depression should not be thought of as a disorder at all. In an article recently published in Psychological Review, we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits…. So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time….

Many other symptoms of depression make sense in light of the idea that analysis must be uninterrupted. The desire for social isolation, for instance, helps the depressed person avoid situations that would require thinking about other things. Similarly, the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities prevents the depressed person from engaging in activities that could distract him or her from the problem. Even the loss of appetite often seen in depression could be viewed as promoting analysis because chewing and other oral activity interferes with the brain’s ability to process information.

But is there any evidence that depression is useful in analyzing complex problems? For one thing, if depressive rumination were harmful, as most clinicians and researchers assume, then bouts of depression should be slower to resolve when people are given interventions that encourage rumination, such as having them write about their strongest thoughts and feelings. However, the opposite appears to be true. Several studies have found that expressive writing promotes quicker resolution of depression, and they suggest that this is because depressed people gain insight into their problems.

The idea that depression–which the authors acknowledge is painful and can be serious–can have a purpose is a new idea to me.

I’m going to go lie in a dark room and think about it.

[Image: Somebody Needs a Hug by Robyn Gallagher]


The depression as a stress-test for nation-states

Paul Raven @ 27-02-2009

Does the financial implosion mean the end of the road for nation-states as we know them? John ‘Global Guerillas’ Robb seems to think it might be, as they’re now caught between two increasingly powerful forces:

1. A dominant, turbulent, and uncontrollable global super-network, that is pressuring/weakening/buffeting nation-states from above.
2. Super-empowered individuals/groups rising up from below that are ready to pounce on or exploit any demonstration of nation-state weakness.

As Robb points out, many of the responses to the situation thus far have been based in the same sort of political thinking that dominated the early 20th Century, and suggests that decentralisation is more likely to be a successful tactic:

… decentralization that both improves resilience and accelerates (parallelizes) innovation offers a greater chance of success.   Nation-states that ease the process of decentralization will likely have both the easiest transition to the new fluid environment and the best long term prospects (wealth creation).

In other words, nation-states are most likely to survive by becoming less like nation-states; whether those massive institutions will be able to let go of the reins that easily remains to be seen.


More bartering business

Paul Raven @ 10-02-2009

barter at a car boot saleIf you think your local economy’s in a mess, just be thankful you’re not living in Russia, where it appears that big corporations are turning to barter trade in a desperate attempt to keep business moving:

So far, economists doubt that barter will grow to the level it reached in the 1990s. Earlier in the transition to a market economy, industrialists still had little monetary stake in their businesses but were dependent on the prestige that went with executive positions, said Andrei Yakovlev of the Higher School of Economics here. They had little incentive to cut costs, and barter deals kept them going for five years, he said.

Now, business owners and managers “are really trying to reduce costs and reduce inefficiency,” Mr. Yakovlev said. Interest in barter, he said, is more likely to come from regional governments, which have the most to lose from high unemployment.

Local government moving towards barter is a little scary… but then a bit of decentralisation might not be a terrible thing if it means that, in the long run, the system becomes more resilient to global clusterfucks like the subprime collapse.

Meanwhile, there are other comparatively recent examples of communities surviving without the assistance of banks – the Irish bank strike of the early seventies, for example. And the sheer amount of coverage being given to alternative currencies and financial systems in places where economics is not traditionally the foremost subject of interest speaks volumes for the overnight erosion of trust in banking as we know it. [image by shawnchin]

What will we build in its place as we move into John Robb’s global guerilla century?


Next Page »