November 14, 2017

QotD: Depressive writing leads to depressed readers

Filed under: Books, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Agatha Christie gave her characters foibles, sure, and often there was a tight intrigue and not just the murderer but two or three other people would be no good. BUT the propensity of the characters gave you the impression of being good sort of people. Perhaps muddled, confused, or driven by circumstances to the less than honorable, but in general driven by principles of honor or love (even sometimes the murderer) and wanting to do the right thing for those they cared about.

You emerge from a Christie memory with the idea, sure, that of course there was unpleasantness, but most of the people are not horrors.

How did we get from there to now, where the characters aren’t even evil? They’re just dingy and grey and tainted, all of them equally. The victim, the detectives, the witnesses, will be vile and contorted, grotesque shapes walking in the world of men.

If this is a reflection of the psyches of most authors, I suddenly understand a lot about the self-hatred of western intellectuals.

But I wonder if it’s a fashion absorbed and perpetuated, communicated like the flu, a low grade dingy patina of … not even evil, just discontent and depression and a feeling that everyone in the world is similarly tainted.

I realized that was part of what was depressing me, partly because I’m a depressive, so I monitor my mood fairly regularly. BUT what about normal people? What if they just absorb this world view — and the idea that it’s smart and sophisticated, too — through popular entertainment, through movies and books and shows and then spew it out into the world, because it stands like a veil between them and reality, changing the way they perceive everything.

[…] such despairing stuff, such low grade despair and unpleasantness change us, particularly when they’re unremitting. You internalize these thoughts, they become part of you. If humanity is a plague, who will have children? If humanity is a plague, why not encourage the criminals and terrorists? If humanity is a plague who is clean?

You. Me. Most human beings. Oh, sure, we’re not perfect — I often think people who write this lack the ability to distinguish between not being perfect and being corrupt and evil — and we often have unlovely characteristics. But, with very few exceptions, most people I know TRY to be decent by their lights, try to raise their kids, help their friends and generally leave the world a little better.

Now, are we representative of everyone? Of course not. A lot of people are raised in cultures (here and abroad) that simply don’t give their best selves a chance. But why enshrine those people and not the vast majority who are decent and well… human?

Even in a mystery there should be innocent and well-intentioned people. It gives contrast to the darker and more evil people and events.

Painting only in dark tints is no more accurate than painting only in pale tints. It doesn’t denote greater artistry. It just hangs a grey, blotched veil between your reader and reality, a veil that hides what is worthwhile in humans and events.

Make yourself aware of the veil and remove it. It’s time the low-grade depression of western civilization were defeated. No, it’s not perfect, but with all its failings it has secured the most benefits to the greatest number of people in the long and convoluted history of mankind. Self-criticism might be appropriate, but not to the exclusion of everything else.

Say no to the dingy-grey-patina. Wash your eyes and look at the world anew. And then paint in all the tints not just grey or black.

Sarah Hoyt, “A Dingy Patina”, According To Hoyt, 2015-10-22.

April 26, 2017

The End of Play: Why Kids Need Unstructured Time

Filed under: Education, Health, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 25 Apr 2017

“School has become an abnormal setting for children,” says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College. “Instead of admitting that, we say the children are abnormal.”

Boston College Psychology Professor Peter Gray says that a cultural shift towards a more interventionist approach to child rearing is having dire consequences for the well-being of kids. “Over the same period of time that there has been a gradual decline in play,” he told Reason‘s Nick Gillespie, “there are well documented, gradual, but ultimately huge increases in a variety of mental disorders in childhood — especially depression and anxiety.”

Gray believes that social media is one saving grace. “[Kids] can’t get together in the real world…[without] adult supervisors,” he says, “but they can online.”

For more on Gray’s work, follow his blog at Psychology Today.

Edited by Mark McDaniel. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Jim Epstein. Music by Broke for Free.

October 8, 2016

QotD: Depression

Filed under: Books, Health, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The book [In the Jaws of the Black Dogs, (1999)] is a compelling, unpleasant read, valuable because it tells us three things. First, that such depressions do not yield to shrink fixes, and will not otherwise “go away.” Second, that there is no “template,” for each sufferer is his own constellation of symptoms which no outsider is privileged to explore. And thus, third, the depression can be controlled and mastered, only if one grasps these things. One must, as it were, leash one’s own black dogs, and it will be neither easy nor painless. While perhaps overwritten, the book is admirable for containing no victim’s plaint, no false appeal for applause, and absolutely no pop psychology.

David Warren, “Unfinished conversations”, Essays in Idleness, 2016-09-19.

June 10, 2016

A breakthrough in our understanding of the causes of depression

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Scott Alexander takes a quick look at a recent discovery in medication for depression:

A few weeks ago, Nature published a bombshell study showing that ketamine’s antidepressant effects were actually caused by a metabolite, 2S,6S;2R,6R-hydroxynorketamine (don’t worry about the name; within ten years it’ll be called JOYVIVA™®© and you’ll catch yourself humming advertising jingles about it in the shower). Unlike ketamine, which is addictive and produces scary dissociative experiences, the metabolite is pretty safe. This is a big deal clinically, because it makes it easier and safer to prescribe to depressed people.

It’s also a big deal scientifically. Ketamine is a strong NMDA receptor antagonist; the metabolite is an AMPA agonist – they have different mechanisms of action. Knowing the real story behind why ketamine works will hopefully speed efforts to understand the nature of depression.

But I’m also interested in it from another angle. For the last ten years, everyone has been excited about ketamine. In a field that gets mocked for not having any really useful clinical discoveries in the last thirty years, ketamine was proof that progress was possible. It was the Exciting New Thing that everybody wanted to do research about.

Given the whole replication crisis thing, I wondered. You’ve got a community of people who think that NMDA antagonism and dissociation are somehow related to depression. If the latest study is true, all that was false. This is good; science is supposed to be self-correcting. But what about before it self-corrected? Did researchers virtuously say “I know the paradigm says NMDA is essential to depression, and nobody’s come up with a better idea yet, but there are some troubling inconsistencies in that picture”? Or did they tinker with their studies until they got the results they expected, then triumphantly declare that they had confirmed the dominant paradigm was right about everything all along?

February 7, 2015

Is there a relationship between physical illness and depression?

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Last month, Scott Alexander tried to show the evidence, pro and con, on whether we have detected a causal relationship between physical ailments and depression:

Start with From inflammation to sickness and depression [PDF], Dantzer et al (2008), who note that being sick makes you feel lousy [citation needed]. Drawing upon evolutionary psychology, they theorize this is an adaptive response to make sick people stay in bed (or cave, or wherever) so the body can focus all of its energy on healing. A lot of sickness behavior – being tired, not wanting to do anything, not eating, not wanting to hang around other people – seems kind of like mini-depression.

All of this stuff is regulated by chemicals called cytokines, which are released by immune cells that have noticed an injury or infection or something. They are often compared to a body-wide “red alert” sending the message “sickness detected, everyone to battle stations”. This response is closely linked to the idea of “inflammation”, the classic example of which is the locally infected area that has turned red and puffy. Most inflammatory cytokines handle the immune response directly, but a few of them – especially interleukin-1B and tumor necrosis factor alpha – cause this depression-like sickness behavior.


Here are some other suspicious facts about depression and inflammation:

– Exercise, good diet and sleep reduce inflammation; they also help depression.

– Stress increases inflammation and is a known trigger for depression.

– Rates of depression are increasing over time, with the condition seemingly very rare in pre-modern non-Westernized societies. This is commonly attributed to the atomization and hectic pace of modern life. But levels of inflammation are also increasing over time, probably because we have a terrible diet that disrupts the gut microbiota that are supposed to be symbioting with the immune system. Could this be another one of the things we think are social that turn out to be biological?

– SSRI antidepressants, like most medications, have about five zillion effects. One of the effects is to reduce the level of inflammatory cytokines in the body. Is it possible that this is why they work, and all of this stuff about serotonin receptors in the brain is a gigantic red herring?

– It’s always been a very curious piece of trivia that treating depression comorbid with heart disease significantly decreases your chances of dying from the heart disease. People just sort of nod their heads and say “You know, mind-body connection”. But inflammation is known to be implicated in cardiovascular disease. If treating depression is a form of lowering inflammation, this would make perfect sense.

– Rates of depression are much higher in sick people. Cancer patients are especially famous for this. No one gets too surprised here, because having cancer is hella depressing. But it’s always been interesting (to me at least) that as far as we can tell, antidepressants treat cancer-induced depression just as well as any other type. Are antidepressants just that good? Or is the link between cancer being sad and cancer causing depression only part of the story, with the other part being that the body’s immune response to cancer causes inflammatory cytokine release, which antidepressants can help manage?

– Along with cancer, depression is common in many other less immediately emotion-provoking illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. The common thread among these illnesses is inflammation.

– Inflammation changes the activity level of the enzyme indoleamine 2,3 dioxygenase. This enzyme produces kynurenines which interact with the NMDA receptor, a neurotransmitter receptor implicated in depression and various other psychiatric diseases (in case your first question upon learning about this pathway is the same as mine: yes, kynurenines got their name because they were first found in dog urine).

– Sometimes doctors treat diseases like hepatitis by injecting artificial cytokines to make the immune system realize the threat and ramp up into action. Cytokine administration treatments very commonly cause depression as a side effect. This depression can be treated with standard antidepressants.

– Also, it turns out we can just check and people with depression have more cytokines.

There’s also some evidence against the theory. People with depression have more cytokines, but it’s one of those wishy-washy “Well, if you get a large enough sample size, you’ll see a trend” style relationships, rather than “this one weird trick lets you infallibly produce depression”.


So in conclusion, I think the inflammatory hypothesis of depression is very likely part of the picture. Whether it’s the main part of the picture or just somewhere in the background remains to be seen, but for now it looks encouraging. Anti-inflammatory drugs do seem to treat depression, which is a point in the theory’s favor, but right now the only one that has strong evidence behind it has side effects that make it undesirable for most people. There’s a lot of room to hope that in the future researchers will learn more about exactly how this cytokine thing works and be able to design antidepressant drugs that target the appropriate cytokines directly. Until then, your best bets are the anti-inflammatory mainstays: good diet, good sleep, plenty of exercise, low stress levels, and all the other things we already know work.

December 1, 2013

QotD: The psychological profile of a losing team’s fans

Filed under: Quotations, Sports — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:39

One of the joys of living in New York City is that a psychoanalyst is never too far away. Indeed, my neighbor Barry Stern is a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University College. After I had explained my predicament, he quipped, “I think New York Mets fans would have a lot to say about this,” before launching into a psychoanalytical explanation in which “masochists” (his word) “turn passive into active” when faced by a traumatic experience over which they have no control.

“It sounds like you take control of the experience of disappointment by preemptively becoming disappointed,” he told me. “You savor the anticipated loss when the team is down, a stance from which you can comfortably root for a win, without risking too much.” Viewed like that, the 1-0 lead is inherently less pleasurable.”Rather than enjoying your team being ahead, you manage the anxiety associated with them inevitably mucking up, negating the positive mood created through their lead … by spoiling it yourself. No more anxiety, just depression, and the familiar feeling of managing the weak sense of hope they might just pull this one out.”

Roger Bennett, “Is there such a thing as a happy football fan?”, ESPN Relegation Zone, 2013-09-17

June 23, 2012

The real ending to Krugman’s favourite example, the Capitol Hill babysitting co-op

Filed under: Economics, Government, Humour — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:32

Tim Harford recounts the tale of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-op, which Paul Krugman is very fond of using as an example to support his economic prescriptions, but he includes the part that Krugman tends to ignore … the ending:

One of the most renowned parables in economics is that of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-operative. It became famous because of Paul Krugman, a winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics and a pugnacious columnist for The New York Times.

Long, long ago (the 1970s) in a town far, far away (Washington, DC) there was a babysitting co-op with a problem. The 150 or so families in the co-op, mostly congressional staffers, shared babysitting duties and kept track of who was owed babysitting, and who was owing, with a system of “scrip” – tokens good for a half-hour’s sitting.

Thanks to an administrative misstep, the co-op ended up short of tokens. Most families wanted more, as a buffer in case they had a run of social engagements, and so most families wanted to stay in and sit for others. Of course, if everyone wants to babysit, nobody goes out, and that means nobody babysits either. The co-op suffered a demand-led depression: there was no shortage of people willing to supply babysitting services, but because of a failure of monetary policy, this potential supply was not called into play. [. . .]

Two-and-a-half cheers, then, for Krugman. But something has been nagging at me ever since I read the original story of the Capitol Hill babysitting co-op, published in 1977 by Joan and Richard Sweeney. Paul Krugman’s most recent retelling does not mention how the original story ends: the co-op prints too much scrip, inflationary pressures spring up and are suppressed, and the co-op seizes up again because nobody wants to stay at home babysitting. Krugman is right when he says that economies sometimes suffer from problems that have technical solutions. Perhaps he is too quick to suggest that those technical solutions are simple.

But let me look for compromise. The babysitting co-op was ruined because it was run, incompetently, by a bunch of Capitol Hill lawyers. In this respect I think we can all agree that it remains an important cautionary tale.

January 16, 2012

It may be pseudoscientific gibberish, but it makes a good newspaper headline

Filed under: Health, Media, Randomness — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:35

It’s pretty much a certainty that your local newspaper and radio stations have been busy pushing the meme that today is “Blue Monday“. It’s actually a bit of advertising creativity that’s metastasized:

January is a depressing time for many. The weather’s awful, you get less daylight than a stunted dandelion and your body is struggling to cope with the withdrawal of the depression-alleviating calorific foods, such as chocolate, of the hedonistic festive period. January is one long post-Christmas hangover.

So there are many reasons why someone may feel particularly “down” during January. But every year, much of the media become fixated on a specific day — the third Monday in January — as the most depressing of the year. It has become known as Blue Monday.

This silly claim comes from a ludicrous equation that calculates “debt”, “motivation”, “weather”, “need to take action” and other arbitrary variables that are impossible to quantify and largely incompatible.

True clinical depression (as opposed to a post-Christmas slump) is a far more complex condition that is affected by many factors, chronic and temporary, internal and external. What is extremely unlikely (i.e. impossible) is that there is a reliable set of external factors that cause depression in an entire population at the same time every year.

But that doesn’t stop the equation from popping up every year. Its creator, Dr Cliff Arnall, devised it for a travel firm. He has since admitted that it is meaningless (without actually saying it’s wrong).

August 6, 2009

QotD: Depression

Filed under: Health, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:01

I will meet October with a great weight off my chest. I will meet December with the novel mostly done. In between now and then I just want to be happy and content and useful. The last two weeks have been a bit unfortunate, with the Black Dog prowling and growling in the bushes outside the reach of the campfire light; I just lost enthusiasm for my enthusiasms. I think it’s lifted. The worst thing about Depression isn’t the sense that you’re ac-centuating the negative, it’s that you’re seeing things the way they really are, stripped of the illusions you use every day to divert yourself from the Yawning Maw of Futility. It’s the wind that blows off the snow and reveals the stone.

James Lileks, Bleat, 2009-08-04

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