Tuesday 21 October 2014

PERFECT Launch (3): Depression and its Benefits

Magdalena Antrobus
My research focuses on epistemic and pragmatic benefits of imperfect cognitions found in the clinical population. More specifically I am interested in acquiring answers related to the question of the possible positive sides of mental disorders.

It is commonly known that mental illness constitutes a source of profound harm. It relates to individual suffering, distorts one’s cognitive, emotional and behavioural processes, and sometimes leads to severe impairment. However, the results of more recent psychological studies indicate that psychiatric disorders might be linked to particular benefits as well as causing pain.

There has been a well-researched relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity. It is believed that certain clinical symptoms brought by the illness, for example thought speed or openness for new experiences, may contribute to enhanced creativity (see for instance Ghaemi, 2011; Andreasen, 2005; Jamison, 1996). (For more details see my interview with Greg Currie.) If that were true, we would have the grounds to believe that bipolar disorder brings certain epistemic benefits. At the same time the illness may cause cognitive impairments in other areas of functioning, for example it may affect memory, sleep and concentration. The idea that pragmatic or psychological harm may coexist with the benefits of an epistemic kind is relatively new in psychiatry, thus researching it seems very exciting.

In the first year of the Project I am going to focus on another yet phenomenon related to the benefits of imperfect cognitions, that is, so-called “depressive realism” (DR). Studies on people suffering from depression indicate that they are able to make more accurate predictions about future events as well as describe the present reality in more accurate detail than healthy individuals. The ‘sadder but wiser’ phenomenon attracts a lot of attention from researchers. The following question comes to mind: what processes related to depression (if any) affect people in such a way that they are able to produce more balanced judgments? In order to address this question, a number of studies and experiments have been conducted (for instance, Yang et al. 2012; Jain et al. 2012; Seidel et al. 2012), with some of the reports confirming the DR thesis, whilst other presenting surprisingly contradictory outcomes.

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Another phenomenon closely related to DR is so called “defensive pessimism”. Recent studies indicate that pessimistic predictions over own future might carry important epistemic benefits. Such a way of perceiving the world, whether it is based on biased or realistic grounds or not, plays an important role in managing one’s anxiety. It has been evidenced that by setting one’s own expectations at a low level, people might avoid feeling extensively anxious or disappointed (you can read more about defensive pessimism here).

Providing accurate answers to the questions of possible upsides of mental disorders is also of great practical importance. A thorough understanding of the complexity of mental life could help battle social stigma and contribute to research on the most effective therapies.

Other areas of philosophy that I find exceptionally interesting and that PERFECT will allow me to explore further, are the relationship between body and mind (especially, embodied cognition and enactivism), and theories of happiness and of the value and meaning of life.

Here I talk about my plans for the first year of project PERFECT (video).


  1. I believe that what it means for some condition X to be epistemically beneficial is that it enhances one's ability to acquire true beliefs - is that correct?

    In that case the phenomenon of "depressive realism" in depression shows that the condition Depression can be epistemically beneficial, as discussed above.

    It is also argued when delusional people hold a false belief that condition too can be epistemically beneficial i.e. that holding a false belief can enhance one's ability to acquire true beliefs. But I have not seen any evidence, or any good arguments, to suggest that this is so. Hence what reason is there for suggesting that delusion is a condition that can be epistemically beneficial?

    1. Dear Max

      Thank you very much for your comment!

      My work is very much centered on the possible benefits of inaccurate conditions found in the clinical population. That enhanced accuracy of particular judgments is related to some stages of depressive spectrum is of course easy to see. For instance, recent empirical studies support the thesis of more accurate perception of time in depression. The phenomenon of time, although socially constructed, can be objectively measured as a subject of commonly agreed methods and tools, and thus is possible to exhibit the properties of ‘truth’. This allows us to conclude that ‘depressive realism’ might carry some epistemic benefits, in such an understanding that being depressed may enhance one’s ability to acquire true beliefs.
      It is important to notice, that it is not just clock-modeled time, which is perceived more accurately by people with depression. More accurate depressive judgments seem to apply also to such cognitively distinct domains like perceived understanding in personal relationships or insight into intensity of the symptoms of one’s own long-term illness.

      For example, people with depression often report feeling lonely and misunderstood by their non-depressed partners. Partners, in turn, deny such a thing. They maintain that they do understand their spouse, and that the reported feelings are a subject of negative depressive bias. Meanwhile, experimental studies confirm that what is reported by persons with depression (probably based more on their emotional state than on their cognitively acquired belief) is true. Their partners do not understand what they are going through, neither on cognitive nor on emotional level.

      This depressive awareness of being misunderstood may increase feelings of loneliness and enhance some of the depressive symptoms. In this case, we can say that ‘depressive realism’, although epistemically beneficial, carries psychological and pragmatic costs. In some cases, these costs might outweigh the benefits for that particular agent.

      In some cases of MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) delusions may appear. Some argue, that one function of depressive delusions might be related to reducing levels of stress and anxiety. The agent makes her own attempt for a possible explanation of the symptoms, which causes enormous suffering. She may construct a coherent (for herself) story, in which her anxiety and despair find some justification. This, in turn, may help to reduce stress and other depressive symptoms. By contributing to better well-being, delusions may appear to be epistemically beneficial, as they enable the agent to acquire new relevant information and, possibly, help to reduce the negative cognitive bias (thus, contributing to acquiring true beliefs).


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