Does Depression Make You a Better Writer?

Great writers tend to be depressives. From Plato, who was reported to suffer from “melancholic disease,” to recent suicide David Foster Wallace, writing and depression seem inexorably linked. In Nancy Andreasen’s famous study of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 80% of writers surveyed met the formal diagnostic criteria for depression.

Until recently, nobody knew the reason for this. But new research is giving us fresh data on the anatomy and purpose of depression. In an article in the NY Times Magazine in February, Jonah Lehrer gave a fascinating overview of the new information concerning what he calls the “common cold” of mental illness—and suggests depression could even be good for you.

He reports brain function researchers have discovered the part of the brain active in depressive episodes is the same area we use for complex thought. This is huge: creative thought is anatomically identical to depression.

As a result of the new research, some evolutionary psychologists are hypothesizing that humans developed depression—with its accompanying rumination and lack of interest in normal activities—as a mechanism for focusing on problem-solving.

In other words, when Gog’s bestie got smoked trying to spear that saber-toothed tiger, Gog got sad, mooned around not eating, sleeping, or making little he could invent a longer spear.

These studies show depressed people have enhanced reasoning power. Lehrer quoted one researcher who said, “the results were clear: [depression] made people think better.”

This seems especially true for writers. Lehrer quoted another researcher who discovered “sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences,” and Lehrer concluded, “because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst.”

Whether or not you buy the evolutionary cause-and-effect, I think this research gives us tools for understanding—and perhaps managing—the depression that overwhelms so many writers. If we accept that depressive episodes are going to come with long periods of building complex worlds in our heads, maybe we can cope by making sure we take frequent breaks for physical activity, social interaction or non-cerebral tasks (who knew that boring day job was saving you from mental illness?)

What we should NOT do is fear the darkness now proved to be inherent in the creative process. If we can see the pain as part of the package instead of a disease, maybe we can work with it instead of medicating it away.

In her blog This is Madness, Chicago professor Jeanne Petrolle blogged last week about how the pharmaceutical industry is raking in stupendous profits by pathologizing normal emotional processes. They may also be stifling the creativity we need to evolve as a species.

I know from my own experience that anti-depressants slow down or eliminate my creative activity—as well as lightening my wallet and making me fat. Yes there is more pain without them. As Lehrer says “To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness.”

But ultimately I think it’s good news: we’re not nuts; we're writers!