Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Certain Brain Architecture May Predispose for Depression - : But It May Not Be Disadvantageous

Here's something to ruminate on for those interested in brain science and how it relates to human behavior. Evidently, recent neuro-science news out of Scientific American cites research by Jerome J. Maller of Monash University and Alfred Hospital in Melbourne who noticed a particular type of brain abnormality that seemed to show up more often in depressed patients. What is this abnormality in brain architecture?

Their occipital lobes were often wrapped around each other.

Maller and his colleagues investigated further and found that depressed patients were three times as likely to have wraparound lobes. Occipital bending occurred in 35.3 percent of the depressed patients and 12.5 percent of the control subjects, according to their paper, published in Brain. The effect was even more pronounced in women: 45.8 percent of female patients with major depressive disorder exhibited occipital bending versus only 5.9 percent of women without depression, possibly because women’s brains fit more snugly in their skulls than men’s do.

Previous studies have also found that occipital bending is more common in patients with schizophrenia. Maller suggests the lobes may wrap around each other when space for brain growth becomes constricted, perhaps because the brain is not doing enough neural pruning—the process by which the brain gets rid of neurons that are no longer needed. Indeed, many other studies have found that depressed brains are hyperconnected. 

 Maller does not know if the finding will have clinical implications beyond helping to diagnose depression, but experts hope that this avenue of research will eventually lead to a deeper understanding of the disorder. “It really suggests some significant biological basis for at least some forms of depression,” says William Hopkins, a professor of neuroscience at Georgia State University, who was not involved in the study.

Is this a big deal and should people with this brain wraparound "abnormality" be worried or reach for the Zoloft? Maybe not, and here's why.It appears from some new research reported in Science News back in November, 2013 by Bruce Bower ("The Bright Side of Sadnesss", p. 18) there are major upsides to feeling sad, even being depressed.  The findings - including a greater willingness to work on demanding tasks and also being more aware of the systemic unfairness in the larger society (as well as its deep political negatives and undercurrents - such as assassinations and torture) makes one more likely to actively respond - including being more concerned with being fair to one's neighbors.

 All of this, of course, had earlier been referenced and praised by Eric G. Wilson, in his book 'Against Happiness" - noting the more we were prepared to satiate ourselves by some delusional "happiness", the more likely we were to remain bamboozled Pollyannas.  Which in today's parlance registers as a myopic consumer.

But if your purpose in life is merely to consume  - to chase some nebulous pie in the sky happy feeling - you will be less likely to care about your fellow man, or the multiple ways this nation is undergoing immense decline before our eyes. 

Granted that feelings of sadness must be balanced, but that doesn't mean we should shut out all negative or even pessimistic emotions as pathological.  This is a point also reinforced by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book: 'Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America', Her book is worth it just to see the skewering of Stephen Covey's "Who Moved My Cheese?" crap in Chapter Four and doing pretty much the same with Martin Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" poppycock in Chapter 6. 

Seligman tries to make us believe that pessimism can have only adverse effects on one's thinking - but in fact, as Chris Hedges shows ('Empire of Illusion') pessimism can be a useful ally and antidote to the manifestly unreal and BS culture we inhabit - where most citizens' brains have already been colonized by "smiley face" bunkum. This leaves them more likely to be relentlessly exploited by capitalist and political predators: purchasing crap goods and services from the first, and buying empty promises from the second.

In my book, 'Atheism: A Beginner's Handbook' I wanted to explain in the last chapter why Americans were almost universally distrustful of atheists (ranking them below Islamic terrorists and homosexuals in terms of respect).  I wrote that "two factors drive this: 1) a brain architecture that favors an optimism dynamic and “hope” even when reality testifies to the contrary, and 2) a pernicious culture of “positivity” that reinforces this brain defect, recently highlighted by Barbara Ehrenreich.[1]  

Ehrenreich noted that American mass culture is saturated by a saccharine “cult of positivity,” with children brainwashed from an early age that they can do anything, and adults brainwashed to believe if they just work hard and long enough they’ll become super millionaires like Donald Trump. That no one has slain the insipid “Horatio Alger” myth up to now is really a testament to America’s  individualist hubris and false optimism.[2]

The takeaway from all this is there is a decent literature in support of not fleeing from every sad thought, or even from mild depression. As one respondent to the original Science News piece put it: "These emotions can be just another source of information".   (Science News, Dece. 14, 2013, p. 30).

Thus, I SHOULD evince depression if if learn about the CIA and its insidious tortures and what it has done to the reputation of our country  - even rendering us hypocritical when we squawk to  North Korea or China about human rights. If we don't practice them uniformly ourselves how do we have a moral leg to stand on? We don't. And that IS depressing!
Those who shut such emotions out are consciously limiting key sources of information and internal response - and perhaps putting themselves in the same place of too many hopeful Jews just after Hitler came to power in Germany. As one Holocaust survivor put it in one of the presentations in The Holocaust Testaments: "It was the pessimists who left the country early. It was the optimists who stayed and got sent to the camps."

[1] Barbara Ehrenreich:  “Pathologies of Hope” in Harpers, Feb., 2007.
[2] Michael Moore, “Horatio Alger Must Die”, in Dude-Where’s My Country?, Warner Books, 2003, p. 137.

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