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.