life with sticks in one's head

Jonah Lehrer’s NYTimes piece

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Jonah Lehrer’s piece in the NYTimes last week has been getting quite a lot of attention. Lehrer’s piece was a sympathetic introduction to the so-called “analytic-rumination hypothesis” of psychiatrist Andy Thomson and evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews. This hypothesis suggests that depression is an adaptive trait, allowing the brain to focus on analysing and solving complex problems. Lehrer writes:”The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.”

But Andrews and Thomson seem to have an odd conception of the brain. As Lehrer puts it, “Their evolutionary perspective, however — they see the mind as a fine-tuned machine that is not prone to pointless programming bugs — led them to wonder if rumination had a purpose.”

For anyone who hasn’t yelled BULLSHIT yet, here’s another of their baseline observations: “They started with the observation that rumination was often a response to a specific psychological blow, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job.”

The piece has sparked a great deal of criticism, perhaps most notably from Dr. Ronald W. Pies, who has responded in both PsychCentral and Psychiatric Times.

Dr. Pies hits most of the major criticisms of the work of Thomson and Andrews, as well as of Lehrer’s reporting on their work, but I’d like to add my own $.02.

1. The notion that depression (which is in itself almost a meaningless word, as it contains so many different diagnoses) and its accompanying rumination are “often a response to a specific psychological blow” is an insult to thousands and thousands of people whose major depressive disorder is largely biological/heredithary. Many of us have tried to think of something that prompted the death grip of the black hound, to no effect. For most of us, that dog has stalked us for many years, and was bound to catch us.

2. The idea of the brain as a “fine-tuned machine that is not prone to pointless programming bugs” is biologically absurd. Why would the brain be different from every other part of the body, which across the population are rife with “programming bugs”?

3. ‘Analytic rumination’ is a contradiction in terms. Rumination is essentially a mental chewing of cud — it is repetitive and not creative, much less analytic. Anyone who has been very ill can tell you that solving problems becomes impossible. Even the most simple things, like getting out of bed, showering, wearing clean clothes, reading a single page of anything, focusing on anything, and remembering something for more than 5 seconds are a constant struggle, taking all of what little energy one has. The notion that the ruminative thinking of major depressives could yield analysis of complex problems is absurd on its face.

4. Lehrer makes a massive mistake, though an understandable one, by beginning his article with Charles Darwin’s struggles with depression. It makes for a clever set up for the evolutionary thinking of Thomson and Andrews on depression, but ends up feeding the romantic myth of the genius depressive. Oh, that such a myth were true. What is truly remarkable about all the romanticized depressives is not that their depression fed their genius (which it surely didn’t), but that they found ways out of or around their depression in order to pursue their work. Who knows how many geniuses mankind has lost to depression?

Mark me — I am a fan of Jonah Lehrer. I subscribe to his blog and his books are on my wishlist. But this was a poor choice for an article, plagued a too-clever-by-half style that left readers wondering whether Lehrer were reporting on the hypothesis or endorsing it.

I should also note that Jonah has been and is responding with a great deal of thought to all of the criticism of the article. Just check out his blog, The Frontal Cortex.


Written by sticksinthehead

8 March 2010 at 10:38 pm

Posted in Science, The Mind/Brain

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