On bad days, when I am tired of wearing my mask of composure, when fortitude seems unfathomable, and all is far from well, I consider the relationship between affliction and art. Why is it that so many writers and other creative souls stumble under a nearly paralyzing emotional weight? Are we all like Jonah in The Giver — the receptacle for our society’s emotions, both good and bad? Why do so many writers suffer from depression? Does the creative soul feed on depression? Or does depression afflict the creator?
Some psychological research reported in the past three years indicates an evolutionary reason for depression, and while there are flaws in the hypothesis (as in the case of severe chronic depression), it’s interesting to consider that there might be an upside to depression for those who spend their lives in the pursuit of creativity.
The hypothesis, called analytic-rumination hypothesis (ARH), authored by J. Anderson Thomson and Paul Andrews, proposes that depression (characterized by rumination, or fixating on one’s problems) evolved as a means of problem-solving. (Full text found here)
The hypothesis states that the characteristic and continual process of rumination triggers the area of the brain that is associated with intense focus. Rumination = focus. This area of the brain is also responsible for analysis. We fixate, we ruminate, we analyze. The logical next step? We solve a problem. But this is a slow process, and the brain gets tired and shuts down. The authors of this study see depression as a booster to this process, allowing the person an increased ability to focus, and therefore an increased ability to solve the problem at hand. Depression = rumination = focus = problem solving.
Paul Andrews conducted an experiment to begin to understand the connection between negative mood and analytical ability. He administered an abstract-reasoning test to 115 undergraduates and found that even non-depressed students felt lousy after taking the test: “the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy.”
So what does this mean for writers, members of one of the top ten professions at risk for suffering depression?
Consider the length of time required to produce a novel. Consider the focus required to craft a truly believable character. Consider the narrative arc, the world-building, the emotional line. Even non-depressed writers would feel lousy after such intense and sustained focus.
Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist studying the correlation between depression and creativity, believes that depression is braided with a “cognitive style” that increases the likelihood of creating successful works of art. The cognitive style? It’s what we writers call “Butt-In-Chair.” Andreasen says that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” We writers ruminate. We focus. We despair. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
As they say, writing is easy. Just put your butt in the chair, open up a vein, and bleed. Your neurological chemistry’s got your back.