Monday, December 05, 2005

Depression, Sensitivity and Creative Juices

It has long been argued or widely believed that depression helps creativity.


Let me tackle this one from a different point of view though.
About a week ago I read an article about a groundbreaking find: Mildly Depressed People More Perceptive Than Others.
Surprisingly, people with mild depression are actually more tuned into the feelings of others than those who aren't depressed, a team of Queen's psychologists has discovered.

At first the researchers were so stunned with the results that they performed the study again with a different group only to produce the same results:
People with mild symptoms of depression pay more attention to details of their social environment than those who are not depressed.

Previous similar studies were done with clinically depressed persons and I guess that now they have reached the conclusion that mild depression and clinical depression may be two different things, which is a controversial idea.

You may have the same reaction to this article/research as I had.
To be honest I don't know much about clinical depression but I think most people have experienced mild depression at some point in their lives, either due to objective reasons or simply because they are more prone to it.
From our experience then, haven't we all noticed that when depression hits us, we become more sensitive, that we can notice every little thing in the people around us, a lingering look, a sigh, raising of the eyebrows?
So why were the researchers surprised?

Also, if I return to what I started with, the argument that depression helps the artist be more creative, then again I'm at a loss with the researchers' surprise at their findings.
Aren't creative people usually 'accused' of being artiste types, prone to depression and forms of madness? And don't we all know how sensitive creative people are? They must be. Artists' social and environmental sensitivity is almost a requirement to their artistic expression. If artists wish to express other people's feelings in their art, to show the world's beauty, people's goodness, or even plush fields, they must know what that is like.
How would otherwise writers describe people's feelings and behavior if they weren't sensitive to it? How would a painter show emotions in their drawings if they weren't sensitive to those very emotions they're trying to paint?

I'm not saying that all artists are, by definition, mildly depressed. Far from it. But we've all encountered those little depression spells that somehow cause the sensitivity to become acute and the creative juices to flow.

If they had asked me, those researchers, I could have told them what to expect. It seems rather obvious to me.

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rdl said...

Definitely, I agree. A no brainer rite? They shoulda just asked us and saved all that $$ on their testing.

redchurch said...

Depression causes lowered activity in the brain, not higher. So there isn't so much a direct correlation between depressed people and creativity as much as creativity fires up activity in the brain, which makes a nice 'medicine' for people who have depression.

Also a good reason why a lot of creative people are more prone to bouts of alchoholism or drug abuse.

The creative-depressed personality (brain) type is looking for stimulation.

Carter said...

In my experience (I have clinical depression), depression does make a person more sensitive to their environment, but seldom in a good way. Paranoia tunes their senses to detect every tiny change or anything that could be remotely threatening. I don't recommend it as a way to get in touch with your Muse, but I sure am able to leverage that into something good when I'm not down in the pit.

Anonymous said...

Depression kills my creativity completely. Although, when I am coming out of it, me creativity is what is usually helping me up.

Deborah said...

I can vouch for what redchurch said about creativity as being "medicine" for depression. Writing and painting have been great outlets for me, especially during the hard times in my life.

Pat Kirby said...

I suspect, just from the comments here and what I've heard elsewhere that the effect of depression on creativity varies from person to person.

Since I'm depressed every other day, depression is constant force in my life. My instability fuels both the darker side of writing and the humor. I don't take antidepressants.

I saw an interview with Jim Carrey where he said he'd taken Prozac but stopped because it took away his creativity and changed essentially who he was.

Of course, this is a personal decision. (I'm not against anti-depressants, so don't flame me.) But for me, I see a definite link between depression and creativity.

Melly said...

Hi All,

Wow! I think this was one of the most interesting discussions we've had here. Thanks :)

Regardless of whether or not depression fuels creativity, or creativity helps getting out of the depression, there seems to be a link.

Since I wasn't talking about clinical depression (which I can only imagine how it would debilitate someone's abilities to observe, create and what not), but about mild depression either because of personality or because something happened (death for example), then I cannot even begin to comment on some of the stuff.

So… while perhaps not creative at the precise moment of depression, the acuity to the surrounding seems to exist and to help later on when creativity comes back.

Does that about sums it up you think?

Stranger Ken said...

That's exactly why I called my blog "DarkSparks", Melly!

dog1net said...

All of us to a certain extent experience at times what is characterized as being bummed, in a funk, or a little down. Mildly depressed is what happens when things don't go well, or when we are faced with circumstances beyond our control. Clinical depression, though, certainly is not just one bad day, but a bad day everyday. Sometimes when in a funk of sorts, writing can be the perfect cure, but with clinical depression, at least from my experience with the people I work with, feelings of anxiety become so overwhelming that it makes writing or any activity that requires any length of concentration near impossible.
Interesting post,

Eric Mutta said...

I've always been fascinated by the link between depression and creativity. Have you noticed how when we face depression we sometimes get that "ugh, I don't care anymore" attitude?

Could it be that this attitude allows us to "let go" and transfer the often intense emotions onto paper without any editing, philosphising and self-consciousness? The resulting passion, enabled by this "letting go", is probably what makes the work so great.

It may be, then, that great works require deep passion and that depression is just one (sometimes very effective) method of evoking passion. Hmmmmm. A stroke-the-long-white-beard moment :-)

The Phoenix said...

Yeah, and another study from last month shows that schizophrenic/creative types have more sexual partners.

The way your brain is wired affects your mood, your choices, and your why does this finding surprise people?

So Rainmain knows that there are 394 toothpicks on the ground...who cares? Would you trade such powerful perception for your normalness?

Would you trade your happiness for depression if it meant you'd be more creative?

No thanks.

kate said...


I know from my own experience that mild depression or literally depression has great influence on our creativity.

We generally become more sensitive and more aware of our surrounding even though we seem to others "indifferent".

But if you ask me, I wouldn't like to be other than I'm and that I've always been because I couldn't be who I'm …!

So, why are they surprised?

Melly said...

Hi Again,

Seems that again, we all agree that deep, long-term depression, or what the psychologists would call 'clinical' is not conducive to creativity, yet we know (as the researchers have found out) that we do get more sensitive and then able to channel it into creativity of sorts (maybe because we 'let go').

I wouldn't want or choose to be depressed to become more creative, I don't think any of us would, but the ability to feel things strongly and passionately is one of artist's best and more valuable quality.

Thanks again.

redchurch said...

Being a creative person is one reason I've taken a great interest in neuroscience. I like to know how my own brain works!

On the subject of some enlightening reading, Synaptic Self is a good one as is Descartes Error and Looking for Spinoza.

If you're interested in Evolutionary Pscyhology there's always Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, and Blank Slate.

Blank Slate is one I find particularly relevant to creative people.

E.O. Wilson's Consilience is great as well.

These books have helped me interpret my personal journey both into adulthood and a lot of the neurotic thought processes I go through, much of which makes me one of the damned. ;)

Marewheeee said...

I agree with the idea that depressed creative brains need stimulation. Also, know that the creative act itself, which cures the depression, is sometimes hard to come by creating a cycle of non creativity.
Thus the 'aholic syndrome. Add your own prefix.
I know that I'm a walking miracle just getting through each day!
Depression is not for the faint of heart.

Idorego said...

If the researchers were surprised by their findings then perhaps their own perception levels were low. They weren’t depressed then.

Melly said...

Eric, I don't want to journey into adulthood :)
Just kiddin. Thanks for that list.

Marewheeee, I agree, not for the faint of heart. Not so much from my own experience but from living in the same household as one.

idorego, yeah, right. Maybe they never experienced, or when they did, they never stopped to think!

Ryan Oakley said...

I think the researchers put the cart before the horse. People probably aren't perceptive because they're depressed. They're probably depressed because they're perceptive.

Melly said...

Ryan! You're here!
Heh... Sure, I get depressed each day just from having my eyes open.

Anonymous said...

Effexor XR is a potent inhibitor of the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine-two neurotransmitters thought to play important roles in the pathophysiology of depression. Correcting the imbalance of these two chemicals may help relieve symptoms of depression.

Anonymous said...

Celexa is in a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Celexa affects chemicals in the brain that may become unbalanced and cause depression. Celexa is used to treat depression.

melly said...

Why, anonymous, thank you so much for most insightful comments.

ObilonKenobi said...

Ryan might be right. People might be prone to depression because they are more sensitive. I find myself to be prone to melancholy followed by fits of epiphany. In the moments of mild depression I become more introspective. When I am feeling fine I am open to other's feelings and motivations. Then I will sulk a little and then it comes to a head. This has been my M.O. for most of my life although in greater and lesser degrees depending. I think that artists are mor einclined to be depressed but that may be because they are more open to the variations of the world around them, less insulated to the people, events and social issues they encounter. Perhaps they are depressed because they have the qualities that make them artistic which in turn makes them depressed rather than being depressed because they are artists and they have no money or audience. (Then again...)

melly said...

I think I lost you somewhere between the cause and effect :)
Just kiddin'. You probably have a very good point, just like Ryan.
In the research they did though, they specifically checked the acuity of mildly depressed people and found it to be high.
But I like your theory better, and more, I think you have a point.

J said...

I get depressed, when I can't do anything creative. I am creative, and workaholic. That coumpounds my problems. A few years ago I suffered from clinical depression. Why? Because from a low post, highly active job I was promoted to high salary, low activity job. I suffered for 4 years. Was on medicines most of the time. The day I left that job, the depression disappeared. I still suffer from mild depression- only when I can't do any creative work.I love to write humor and satire and laugh easily. But, make me sit ideal and I get depressed. Crying spells and all.
Do I work well when I'm depressed or vice versa?
For me, work is the best antidepressent:)

Anonymous said...

Readers interested in this topic may want to visit They can also find out about a book written by Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer (Write out of Depression) that will be coming to bookstores in June 2008.

andrew123 said...

I wouldn't like to be other than I'm and that I've always been because I couldn't be who I'm …!
Andrew William

Clinical Depression

Anonymous said...

Depression is just one of the mental illnesses that people can actually suffer from but it is in fact the most common. It is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and can lead to mood swings, low self-esteem and self-harm.