November 25, 2014

Analytical Rumination: Depression as Evolutionary Problem Solver?

Last week I stumbled upon an intriguing article in the scientific journal plosONE with the title: “Measuring the Bright Side of Being Blue: A New Tool for Assessing Analytical Rumination in Depression.”

Really? The bright side of being blue? It warranted further investigation.

As the title above suggests, it’s all about Analytical Rumination (AR), a kind of cognitive clarity that supposedly accompanies depression. Its proponents consider it an ancient adaptive response by the body to stresses.

All my life, I’ve heard depression discussed as an unequivocally bad thing, unpleasant and dangerous, something we should do our best to treat and eliminate. Now, some researchers suggest that the symptoms we generally associate with depression – poor concentration, insomnia, lethargy, disinterest in the world generally – may in fact be useful strategies the body concocts to conserve a person’s resources, thereby enabling a more effective focus to identify and solve a particular troubling issue.

What’s more, some scientists now perceive Analytic Rumination as a possible CAUSE of the classic symptoms of depression. And so, they thought, if they could measure AR, healthcare professionals might be able to assess and address the condition before it becomes a dangerous clinical depression (which occurs, so they believe, when this natural and constructive adaptive process becomes overwhelmed and spins out of control, causing people to fully disengage from the world).

Data Already Links Depression and Brain Power
A recent study conducted at McMaster University – a public research facility in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada – included this comment in its abstract:
A substantial body of evidence indicates that depressed mood is associated with increased cognitive processing, improved accuracy on complex tasks, and enhanced detail-oriented judgement on tasks that require deliberate information processing. Individuals with depression have also been shown to consistently outperform non-depressed controls when the experimental tasks involve cost-benefit analysis.

That’s quite a line-up of cognitive advantages accruing to depressed individuals. Several of my friends with experience of clinical depression have described their bouts with the "black dog" very differently. If anything, they felt as if their powers of concentration and analysis were significantly diminished during their episodes. Then again, my friends characterized themselves as "clinically depressed," when mood and cognitive function spiral downward.

The researchers think people engage in AR according to a predictable pattern. Once they identify a problem (which can set in motion the classic symptoms of depression), they proceed to think sequentially in four “domains.”
  1. Examine the problem’s cause, then,
  2. Identify the issues that need to be solved, then
  3. Construct possible solutions, the finally
  4. Create a cost/benefit analysis.
A Test with 22 Questions
This new study team enlisted 439 students from McMaster University. Researchers then administered a 22-question test they devised that would, they thought, identify where the students fell in each of the four domains. Evaluating the data might then suggest the presence and even the nature of depression the respondents were experiencing, if any.

The results have clinical application. According to leading study author Skye Barbic:
Based on how people answer our questions, we can tailor appropriate levels of care and supports. This set of questions can also inform completely different discussions between the clinician and the patient. 
Instead of discussing the disease as a ‘bad thing’, clinicians may be able to help patients have insight about the potential adaptive purposes of their thinking and how this may be used as a strength to move forward in their lives.

Maybe It Is, Maybe It Isn't
It doesn’t really seem all that strange to think about depression as a fundamentally useful condition – an evolutionary development -- that helps people solve problems. After all, so many other things that happen to our bodies – tears, sweat, adrenaline rushes, shock, blood clotting, fight or flight instincts – all serve to keep the human organism alive.

But there are other things that happen to our bodies, too… things like cancer and heart attacks. It’s hard to see how these things serve any evolutionary purpose, short of culling the herd.

So… is depression more like the burst of adrenaline that allows us to overcome a sudden obstacle… or is depression more like a cancer that develops when negative pathologies prevail?

Or, as so often is the case,  is it just a broad label that we slap on a box we created to categorize a huge variety of different conditions?

You be the judge.

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