Some Cosmic Rationale

Hello, it’s me again. I actually came up with a post I thought was worth writing.

I’ve written a lot about happiness because it seemed a topic that kept coming up during the show. This post will be about the flip side: depression. Previously Abby and Santa suggested that the low mood Martin Ellingham exhibits in S6 looked to them like Major Depressive Disorder. (Research in the US and other countries estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder sometime in their lives, so it would be quite unsurprising for ME to have experienced a bout of it.) Not too long ago, Santa sent me an interesting article written by a researcher who looked at depression as an evolutionary adaptation that can be a helpful and useful way to react to various stresses in life. I finally got around to looking up more about this concept and have found some very interesting views related to it. (We would have to say that by S7 ME is no longer in a major depression. His MDD was short-lived.)

(Once again I caution us from assuming that the writers, et. al. had any notion that any of ME’s behavior could be assessed in this way. I just find it fun to see how we could apply these theories to this character.)

So let me review what hypotheses several well respected psychology researchers have noted:

In The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Florida, “presents a compelling inversion of conventional wisdom.” In his book he refers to a variety of studies that indicate that “low mood narrows and directs our attention to perceive threats and obstacles. It also helps conserve energy, facilitates disengagement from impossible goals, and improves our capacity to detect deception and to assess the degree of control we exercise over our environment. Some studies even suggest that low mood can improve skill in persuasive argument and sharpen memory.”

That is not to say that depression is something we should all hope to attain. Rottenberg cautions that “depression can be a useful response in particular conditions, but it can also be a debilitating condition that mars quality of life and even interferes with evolutionary goals of survival and reproduction. The behavioral mechanism that helps us disengage from impossible goals can become a generalized condition that inhibits the pursuit of any goals, even perfectly attainable ones…Depression too can be both a valuable defense and a devastating vulnerability.”

(We shouldn’t overlook how serious this condition can be; however, this show does not allow the depression to reach the point of becoming debilitating to the extent that ME cannot function. To the contrary, when he’s at a very low point, the car hitting Louisa and the discovery of her AVM mobilize him pretty darn quickly.)

Rottenberg’s conclusion that depression can be useful is further confirmed by other researchers. For more than 30 years, UVA psychiatrist Dr. Andy Thomson (Med ’74) has been treating patients, and most often he treats them for depression. Thomson and his collaborator Paul Andrews, now at McMaster University in Canada, believe that depression is an evolutionary paradox. They, too, theorize that if it didn’t confer any advantages, it should have been selected against and occur only rarely in the population. In their view, “depression, psychic pain, alerts you to the fact that you have a problem, stops business as usual, focuses your attention,and can provide a signaling function that you need help.” “Basically, it forces you to think.”

In an article in Scientific American they argue that “depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.”

Furthermore, “many other symptoms of depression make sense in light of the idea that analysis must be uninterrupted. The desire for social isolation, for instance, helps the depressed person avoid situations that would require thinking about other things. Similarly, the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities prevents the depressed person from engaging in activities that could distract him or her from the problem. Even the loss of appetite often seen in depression could be viewed as promoting analysis because chewing and other oral activity interferes with the brain’s ability to process information.” In addition, “laboratory experiments indicate that depressed people are better at solving social dilemmas by better analysis of the costs and benefits of the different options that they might take.”

They have their detractors. Dr. J. Kim Penberthy, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at UVA admonishes them that “ruminative thinking that accompanies clinical depression has been shown to impair thinking and problem solving…In fact, mindfulness-based psychotherapies directly challenge rumination in depression and have been found to be very successful in preventing relapse in clinical depression.”

Penberthy is clear that “clinical depression is conceptualized by clinicians and researchers as having a biopsychosocial etiology, meaning that it is caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social—or environmental or cultural—factors.” She explains that people likely have some genetic predisposition to unipolar and bipolar depression, and these kinds of depression may run in families. But clinical depression has also been associated with early physical or psychological trauma, such as abuse or neglect, as well as repeated psychological insults later in life.

However, in contrast, Thomson argues that recovery may actually require ruminative thinking to solve the problems that trigger depression. Thomson says that evolutionary psychology is inclusive of biopsychosocial causes.

That depression can be viewed as an advantageous adaptation could be applied to Martin Ellingham because he falls into depression after his home life becomes more chaotic and he has a recurrence of his haemophobia as well. He has seemingly previously protected himself from outside stressors by walling himself off from society and retreating into his home, as well as by sublimating his emotions by working on clocks. His attempts to limit his exposure to external forces have now come up against falling in love and all of the attendant demands on him. We have recently been noting that several times throughout the timespan of the show, ME has expressed an inability to control his feelings for Louisa. Therefore, throughout S6, we have a man who can’t control his sentiments for his wife, no longer has the upper hand at home, and has lost whatever limited control he had over his phobia. He has trouble sleeping, has stopped eating very much and their sex life appears to be nonexistent. (They have covered all the bases by including all of the ingredients mentioned by Penberthy of physical and psychological trauma coupled with abuse and neglect, and repeated psychological insults later in life.)

But if Rottenberg is correct, ME’s depression may be providing him with a means of improving his capacity to assess the degree of control he exercises over his environment. His depression also seems to give him time to think, as Thomson says. As Andrews and Thomson declare, “depression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving.” In a sense what ME does is ruminate and come up with a solution to his dilemma. He decides to seek therapy, and he makes up his mind to be as willing to make concessions as possible. The fact that nothing seems to work at first may be more due to the requirements of the plot than to what might have happened under real world conditions.

[BTW, here are some of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s song Pressure (from which I took the “cosmic rationale idea”):
Don’t ask for help
You’re all alone
You’ll have to answer
To your own
I’m sure you’ll have some cosmic rationale
But here you are in the ninth
Two men out and three men on
Nowhere to look but inside
Where we all respond to

Originally posted 2016-09-14 15:59:45.

4 thoughts on “Some Cosmic Rationale

  1. Amy

    This is really interesting since I’ve never heard that depression could be a positive, evolutionary advantage. I’ve seen and known of too many people whose lives were destroyed or who were incapacitated by depression to think of it as anything positive, so I found that theory fascinating. Unfortunately, for too many people depression means a lifetime of misery and all too often suicide.

    So I never thought of Martin as really depressed in the clinical sense. Unhappy, dysphoric, sad, lonely–etc. But not depressed. He functions even in S6 as a doctor, gets out of bed every morning, still interacts with James in a pleasant way. But after reading this, perhaps I had too specific an idea of depression, as it seems depression doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is not functioning and perhaps almost suicidal.

    Are you suggesting that Martin is depressed because he loves Louisa and that has made him lose the control he once had over his emotions and his life? Is that what he meant in S3 then when he said she wouldn’t make him happy? And how does the hemophobia’s return play into all this? Is it a cause of his depression? Or is it a result of it?

    This really helps me think about S6 and also S7. I never quite understood why Martin was so miserable in S6. He starts out fine (or as fine as he ever is) in the first few episodes, and then there’s a downward spiral exacerbated by the arrival of his mother. It just didn’t make sense that the return of the hemophobia alone sent him into depression since he’d been dealing with it for years up until S4, perhaps not happily, but coping.

    Great post, Karen. I’d love to hear what the psychology professionals think about all this.

  2. Carol

    This is quite interesting – a somewhat positive spin on depression.

    I have always thought that ME was depressed, all the way from the first episode of the show. As someone who witnessed minor and major depression in my mother, and has suffered from it myself, I definitely think that a lot of his behavior points to a chronic, minor depression all the way through, reaching a peak in S6. I don’t believe it was written to be that way necessarily, but the way MC has interpreted the behavior of the character certainly makes it appear that way to me.

    I’ve always felt that part of his anger and his judgmental behavior toward others points toward anger and judgment internalized against himself. People tend to think that depression always manifests itself as sadness, but in my experience, it manifests as anger at least as often. Especially in people who are still able to function at a fairly normal level.

    I did have some frustration that it was as if his depression disappeared while Louisa was in Spain, which would be highly unlikely, but I put that down to the Portwenn Effect and let it go.

    Depression certainly does narrow a person’s thoughts and, if acted on, can point to problems which need to be solved. One of the biggest problems with depression though, in real life as with ME, is that it is so often denied or minimized, and no help is sought. And in many cases the resultant low energy level makes implementing any “solutions” very difficult, even when help IS sought.

    So, I’d have to say that I have mixed feelings about this hypothesis. However, it is intriguing. Also, I wonder, if depression were approached like this by health care providers, would it make a difference in a person’s attitude toward it? I could see a person, hearing this from a psychiatrist, and thinking that they are not weird (many people’s attitude toward any mental illness). This is merely my brain’s way of calling attention to a problem. I need to figure out what it is and get help to improve the issue(s).

    Therefore, it might be a way of causing a societal attitude shift in attitude toward depressive illness. And THAT would be great!

  3. Post author

    Hi Carol! I appreciate your comments and also found this approach to depression a good new twist on it. I guess I would say, and I think our psychologists in the group would say, that ME is presented as dysphoric throughout the show. He’s got so many possible diagnoses: Asperger’s, OCD, attachment problems, and more. I have to guess they didn’t plan to make any of them definite.

    However, his general downward trajectory in S6, with sleep disturbance, weight loss, and withdrawal, makes it hard to not call it depression.

  4. Amy

    I watched S1, E1 today and thought of this post when Mark Mylow says to Martin, “Are you depressed?” and then tells Martin that he is depressed. So perhaps the writers were really thinking about this from the start.

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