Depression

A few weeks ago, in that entry I wrote about happiness and belief, I briefly mentioned depression and how it may be related to a breakdown in the way the brain processes belief, and I also linked to this article which explains some of the physiological changes the brain goes through during depression, and the possible evolutionary causes behind this changes (it’s not the only thing I’ve read on the subject by the way, it’s just a convenient summary). I’m going to expand on that part a little more here. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I really want to talk about this, but I guess we’ll see how it goes.

As I said in that previous entry, beliefs act as a sort of interconnected network of proven, reliable thoughts, and we use this network to interpret new information. We build up our beliefs through experience and education, and strengthen them through repetition – which is not always a good thing. Due to our limited knowledge, we are forced to adopt illusory beliefs in order to function. But whilst in an ideal world these could just be necessary stepping stones to increased knowledge, in the real world we tend to buy into these false beliefs, and fall into repetitive patterns of behaviour, stunting our growth. Human behaviour often moves in repeated patterns, after all, because the overriding influence on our psyches is fear – the central survival instinct – and anything we can do to placate that fear is something we naturally want to stick with and reuse over and over. We all have our individual tics, unique ways of doing things, flaws, bad habits. Sometimes these patterns are relatively harmless; sometimes they are an inconvenience but still bearable; other times, they can significantly impact our ability to function.

This network of beliefs exists on a deeper level than conscious thought, and so we don’t normally notice its existence or reflect on it at all. Moreover, if you were to try and analyze your own beliefs, you would have to use your belief network to do so, which means it is not possible to gain a truly objective view of them. This is important to keep in mind, because the result is that reflecting on your own beliefs usually just reinforces them, even if you are genuinely trying to find fault. If you could see the flaws in your beliefs you would have accounted for them already; it’s the flaws you can’t see that are the real problem. And considering our finite knowledge, you can be quite certain that such flaws do exist, and that you’ll probably end up encountering them at some point in the future. What happens next, however, is far more important – because you can either acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, or you can try and preserve your beliefs by rationalizing the discrepency away (in other words, you can turn justified belief into blind faith). This is why most people generally don’t change their beliefs much, because unfotunately, rationalizing them is simply the much easier option. After all, our brains are extremely powerful rationalizing machines. This gives us a rather astounding capacity to understand the universe around us, but only if we employ this power wisely.

When people do change their beliefs – and I’m talking about major, significant changes here, like switching religious or political allegiances – it is often the result of a rare and devastating blow to their entire belief system, which leaves them with little choice but to change their ways. This is not always the case, of course, but it accounts for most sudden and short term changes. When people change their beliefs through reflection and personal growth, it usually takes a lot longer for the changes to manifest, as they sort through all the details at their own pace. For example, I gave up my religious beliefs quite voluntarily, but I also did it over a very long period of time, as I was never faced with any direct challenges to my beliefs. I just gradually changed them on my own terms, as I learned more about the world and decided that some of the things I had been taught to believe were wrong. I realised fairly early on that the idea of a “god” in the conventional sense was a rather tenuous concept, but I held onto other aspects – like an afterlife of some sort – for quite a bit longer, purely because of the basic appeal of the idea. And that’s the thing with a lot of false beliefs: because they have no basis in reality, they are free to appeal to our emotions without being constrained by truth, like any good piece of fiction. They can be extremely hard to dislodge – except under special circumstances, when you encounter something which breaks through your rationalizations and brings the whole structure down at once.

It is this sudden and short-term collapse of the belief network which I will be focusing on here, because it seems to be one of the primary causes of depression (perhaps there are other causes as well; it probably manifests in a variety of complex ways, but this is the one I am interested in today). And as an aside, I think that this type of breakdown of beliefs also accounts for the “light” that people claim to see when they discover religion. It doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic properties of their new belief system (all you need is a concept that carries its own internal logic, as I discussed in that previous entry); rather, it is just the enormous sense of relief that comes with finding a replacement for their old and broken beliefs. Because make no mistake, when your belief network breaks down, the pressure to build it back up again is quite severe. I know, because I have experienced it firsthand. And personally, I’m just glad that I had already tried seeing that particular light – and I didn’t find any answers there, either.

I’ll try and go through the process step by step. The event that causes the breakdown can be any number of things; it all depends on your own particular mix of beliefs. It could even be something quite mundane, like an offhand comment or a thoughtless action – or you might encounter an unforeseen consequence of your own actions, which causes you to stop in your tracks. In many cases it will be a convergence of several different factors, which, even though you might have been able to rationalize each one away individually, combine together to overwhelm your rationalization processes. But whatever it is, it is obviously completely unexpected, because this is by definition something you can’t see coming. It exploits a weak point in your beliefs, in a way that you’ve never even considered before. After that, the initial reaction is mostly just a surreal numbness, as the shock gradually works its way through your system. There’s no flash of lightning or anything like that; just an indeterminate mental pressure which settles in lightly on top of your mind and slowly starts to get heavier. You can feel it dragging you down over the coming days and weeks, but you can’t tell where it’s coming from, or what the source of the problem is. It’s kind of like slowly sinking into quicksand, except you don’t notice what’s happening until you’re already halfway under. You’re probably becoming increasingly tired, and your sleep patterns are being disrupted. Your appetite may also be affected, though I think this can vary from person to person. At this stage, you’re mostly just confused and scrambling for a handhold of some sort. All your thoughts are jumbled up, your mind wanders off on odd tangents which can start to significantly preoccupy your time and distract you from necessary tasks, and the whole world just seems slightly… off centre, in a way that is pretty much impossible to articulate. You don’t realise it, but your belief network is in complete disarray, leaving you unable to properly interpret the world around you. You may slowly become aware of what seems to be a gaping hole in your mind, as if someone has reached in and opened up a vacuum – and then you might notice the extremely powerful pressure to find something to fill that hole. It becomes an all-consuming task, one which you just can’t tear yourself away from, no matter how you try. By this stage the impact on your life has become quite significant, as an undeniable clinical depression has set it. Whenever you are alone with your thoughts, there is a lingering sense of sadness, as if you are constantly on the edge of bursting into tears. Your brain is rewiring all its resources to try and deal with the problem, and as a result, your wandering mind is now setting off on full-blown ruminations, identifying a problem of some sort and attacking it voraciously. This problem may or may not be the one that triggered the depression; if it’s a different problem, then obviously little progress will be made, as clearly you are just projecting your feelings in order to avoid the real issue. On the other hand, you may actually make significant inroads into whatever alternate problem you are focusing on; this depressive state can be a powerful motivator, despite its drawbacks. Undoubtedly, more than a few great works of art and other accomplishments have been borne from this mindset, even as the creator struggles in vain against problems they cannot deal with.

What happens next depends on a few different factors. For less severe problems, you may simply work through it on your own, figure out a solution, and slowly bring yourself back to normal. Or instead of figuring out the real solution, you might latch on to an alternate belief set and content yourself with that, even though it may not be a step forward at all (hey, I’m looking at you, religion). Alternatively, you might seek professional help and work through your problems that way, perhaps with the aid of medication to make the symptoms more bearable. You might solve the problem, or you might just learn to live with it – though it seems to me that this may leave you vulnerable to further depressive incidents (and indeed, such reoccurances are common amongst people who suffer from a more long-term depression). Of course, if you don’t work through the problem, the outcome can be considerably worse. When you’re in the grips of this depressive state – and don’t forget, it physically changes the way your brain functions – suicide can become a scarily plausible and logical option.

The key to all of this seems to lie in the intense ruminations which depression triggers. In response to a major problem which throws your beliefs into disarray, the brain seems to radically switch gears, and devote almost all its resources to solving this problem. Which is why depression can have such a marked effect on people’s lives, because everything else gets a lesser priority. And if you’ve ever tried to solve a problem that you have little understanding of and are making no progress on, then it’s not hard to see why depression is accompanied by feelings of intense sadness, frustration and confusion. It’s also not hard to see why finding a way out – any way out, regardless of the consequences – can turn into a powerful, irrational desire.

Personally I am still feeling the after-effects of these ruminations, as you might have noticed from the gigantic blog entries I’ve been dropping on you here. I have had to reconstruct a lot of my beliefs, as a result of some rather stupid and naïve choices I’ve made in the past, and also from gaining a greater understanding of the consequences of my actions, and where they could lead to if I didn’t change the path I was on. But I think that ultimately these ruminations are a good thing, and considering that we all face problems to some extent, it is something that I really recommend doing. You don’t have to actually start a blog, or even show what you write to anyone – I know I’ve written a more than a few rants which will never see the light of day (and with good cause – you’re not missing out on anything). And if writing doesn’t appeal to you, then there are all kinds of different forms of expression to choose from – even if it’s just talking to someone. Whatever the method, the important thing is simply finding a way to get your thoughts out of your head, in order to break free of whatever mental loop you are repeating over and over. Like I said earlier, our thoughts tend to move in repeated patterns, and when these patterns deliver negative consequences, it is often because we are missing some crucial element with which to break free of this pattern. Constantly returning to erroneous beliefs is the main source of a whole variety of different problems, and so you need to find a way of highlighting the flaws in your own beliefs in order to fix them. You’d be surprised at how different your thoughts look once you’ve found some way of seeing them reflected back at you, and how much easier it is to spot flaws, especially if you wait a few weeks and come back with fresh eyes. And it doesn’t matter if you end up writing complete garbage, either – because at least then you’ll know that you’re wrong, and you can discard those thoughts and start searching for some new ones. And let’s face it, you’re going to spend most of your time being wrong anyway, regardless of what you believe in. That is simply the nature of our finite, fear-driven brains.

One other note on beliefs: most people seem to have two different belief sets – one which they show publicly, and one which only finds expression in private. Often these two belief sets are not exactly compatible, if not outright contradictory. But this is not the result of deliberate hypocrisy – it is simply the consequence of growing up a society where people are taught to think one way but act another. For example, we are (usually indirectly) taught to believe that violence is cool and desirable, and we often see people using violence to their own advantage (especially in fiction), but at the same time we are taught that it is wrong, and we shouldn’t act that way because that’s not how Nice People treat each other. We are given a secret belief which contradicts the way we are supposed to act, but this belief inevitably has to find expression somewhere. As I discussed in that entry about violence, for people with a more developed sense of empathy, this expression is usually found in fantasy – but for others, it will contribute to real-life instances of violent behaviour. There are numerous other examples of contradictory beliefs: people who claim to be anti-racist or anti-sexist or whatever but whose sense of humour clearly indicates otherwise; politicians who, well… act like politicians; people who act nicely until a person leaves and then talks shit behind their backs; people who tone down their sense of humour in public but secretly enjoy much harsher humour… okay these are kind of obvious examples, but hopefully you get the picture. Most of us can relate to times where we act contrary to our beliefs in order to avoid social consequences. This behaviour is often entirely understandable, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay, or that we shouldn’t stop and examine ourselves when we find ourselves falling into such patterns.

These problems can be traced back to the way in which people learn social behaviour, and, I think, the influence of religious morality: where people are not taught why they should behave a certain way, but simply that they have to follow the rules and that they will be punished if they don’t. Kids grow up being taught to follow rules for fear of punishment, only to be handed over to the religious system where you have to follow the Sky Daddy’s rules or end up facing the Ultimate Punishment. In both cases, it is a system which revolves around control, rather than true education – in fact, at the expense of true education. Hence, religion forces people to remain in a child-like state of moral growth, instead of properly developing their empathetic capacities – and interestingly, though perhaps not surprsingly, this system has transferred over to the secular world as well, minus the supernatural elements. This is where the divergence between belief and behaviour originates. People will usually follow the rules because it is in their own self-interest (it is very difficult to live outside the system), but they will develop beliefs which are at odds with the rules they are following, which naturally breeds resentment and a lack of respect and understanding for why these rules exist in the first place. This leads to minor rebellious behaviour, but more importantly, it means that they end up breaking the wrong rules, and makes it much harder for them to know when the rules really are unfair and therefore not worth following. In other words, they become a rebel without a cause, rather than a rebel fighting for social improvement. They know that something is wrong, but they have little idea of the true nature of this problem. And hey, guess what – this is the situation that a lot of teenagers find themselves in, and they often end up with depression as a result. I think this highlights some serious, fundamental flaws in the punishment/reward parenting style. Even when it works, it works for the wrong reasons.

Working out the differences between your private and public beliefs will go a long way towards rectifying your problems, sometimes in surprising ways. Because the thing is, your secret beliefs are your beliefs – otherwise you wouldn’t care about keeping them a secret. Your public beliefs are merely a façade with which you protect your secret beliefs – usually because deep down, you are well aware that they are wrong, but you still cling to them because that has become the pattern into which you fall, in order to control your fear. These beliefs, and the possibility of them being publicly discovered, become a major source of anxiety – and so letting go of these beliefs is one of the most powerful self-improving actions you can perform. It frees up so many mental resources, and opens you up to so many possibilities, that you’ll really wonder what was holding you back in the first place.

Hmm, I guess I’d better try and bring this entry to some kind of summation. You belief network, as fleeting and enigmatic as the concept may seem, is one of your most important traits. It is your identity; it dictates how you think, how you perceive the world, and how you treat other people. You start constructing it in childhood, and you build it up in the same way that children learn all kinds of different things: primarily, by observing the behaviour of the people around you. Which means that you are enormously susceptible to picking up the negative and harmful beliefs of a flawed and still-evolving society, especially when you are quite young and have not yet developed the means with which to properly screen your influences and weed out these problems. And so they quietly take root, lurking behind the public façade you develop in order to successfully navigate the world. Eventually, they become mental road blocks, preventing you from developing a more coalesced worldview and, in the worst scenarios, manifesting in negative behavioural traits.

I don’t want to be melodramatic, but this is some really serious shit. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death amongst people under the age of 25 – it accounts for more deaths than road accidents, for example – and mental disorders like depression are present in a high percentage of these cases. This is why I criticize religion so much, and why I criticize a lot of other things, too – because when this stuff goes wrong, it goes wrong really badly. Beliefs built around non-existent entities, or fear-driven behaviours, leave you highly vulnerable to the kind of mental collapse which triggers depression, because when challenged, the only other option is to try and retreat further and further into these flawed belief systems, causing you to become increasingly detached from reality, and unable to break free of the patterns you have trapped yourself within. One way or another, you have to eventually reach a breaking point, and the consequences of this are not pleasant.

Understanding the adaptability of the human mind is the key to breaking free of these problems. We live in a heretofore unique period of Earth’s history, where the evolution of life is no longer confined to DNA, but moves through a new and even more amazingly powerful and mysterious force of nature: the human brain. It is the evolution of culture, and of ideas, which will dictate where we go next – or if we even go anywhere at all. But whilst the adaptability of our minds is a tremendous strength in many ways, the sheer pace of this evolutionary process can be difficult to keep up with, and it is only getting faster as time goes on. Just as we are getting settled in with the last new idea, it is supplanted by something else – and then that, too, is rendered obsolete. This kind of change, as usual, invokes fear, which causes us to fall back onto old patterns instead of continuing to move forward. Fear is the main source of irrationality and false belief. It is what drives people to violence, drives people to resist change, drives people to seriously believe in Bronze Age mythology, drives people to do all kinds of weird and unpredictable things.

Learning to adapt in the face of change, in spite of this fear, is what will carry us into the future. This adaptability also helps protect against the sort of mental breakdowns which lead to depression and other problems. But at the same time, putting too much effort into protecting against vulnerability can close off your mind, pushing you too far in the opposite direction. You need to be vulnerable in order to be open to all the possibilities life has to offer. As so often seems to be the case in nature, balance is required in order to finally find the ideal path through all this chaos.

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