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Depression Leads To Good Outcomes

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

The Sunday magazine of the February 28, 2010 New York Times contains an interesting article entitled “Depression’s Upside” by Jonah Lehrer. Mr. Lehrer is the author of How We Decide which is a great book and is the subject of my January 15, 2010 blog.

As Mr. Lehrer explains, it seems that depression may be a good thing, after all. While granted, depression has been classified as a mental illness which causes its victim either to stop eating or to start eating too much, lose his/her inclination for sex, have difficulty sleeping and in general be very tired even though he/she is doing less and less, its “rumination” feature is actually beneficial.

According to evolutionary psychiatrist, Andy Thompson (at the University of Virginia) and Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, the “thought process” of rumination defines this order. Those who are depressed “fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods” or “chew over” (i.e. ruminate) their thoughts continuously. (Id. at 2). Because rumination takes control of a person’s stream of consciousness, that person will perform poorly on “tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information.” (Id. at 3).

But, perhaps there is a purpose to this rumination. This is what Thompson and Andrews wanted to determine. As evolutionary psychiatrists and psychologists, they believed that the mind is actually “a fine-tuned machine that is not prone to pointless programming bugs.” Thus, while rumination is a response to a specific psychological blow, such as a death, a job layoff or a divorce, they thought that perhaps some good comes out of rumination or that there is, indeed, a net mental benefit from rumination. (Id.) What they found is that it “leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking.” (Id. at 4):

“. . .rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory. . . – they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.” (Id.)

Because the deliberative thought process is “slow, tiresome and prone to distraction,” our brains grow tired very quickly, and we give up. But the state of depression with its rumination feature allows us to discard all distractions – like eating, sex and sleep – and focus on solving a difficult, if not mind boggling, problems. In short, “wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.” (Id.)

As Mr. Lehrer points out, obviously, there are many who disagree with this theory that, from an evolutionary perspective, depression is a good thing because it causes us to avoid distractions and focus on solving complex problems.

But, this theory led me to “ruminate” whether depression is a good or bad thing in the context of resolving disputes. In many of my mediations, I have witnessed parties go through the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance (On Death & Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross) and soon realized that the parties will not reach a resolution until they reach “acceptance.” But to arrive at that stage, they must pass through the “depression” stage.

This article on depression or the fourth-stage – explains that there is a lot more to “depression” than the “I don’t care anymore about anything” attitude that is its hallmark. It actually allows a person to focus on the issue, analyze it and come up with a solution that leads her to the next and final stage: acceptance.

So, while superficially, depression seems to militate against resolving disputes, its rumination feature actually enhances the process, if not the outcome. I guess it is somewhat of an oxymoron.

. . .Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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