Blue in the Brain – The Upside of Depression

You watch the world bang door after door in your face, numbly, bitterly. You have forgotten the secret you knew, once, ah, once, of being joyous, of laughing, of opening doors.

— Sylvia Plath

Depression is generally associated with a poor intellectual and physical performance. The assumption that negativity and lack of interest in the outcome of one’s efforts are inherent to depressive states is partly accountable for this reputation. However, a recent study argues that there are certain cognitive abilities for which individuals diagnosed with depression measure better than non-depressed ones.

In a study published in 2009 — and immediately transformed into a popular story by prominent media such as The New York Times — evolutionary theory advocates forwarded the notion that depression could be seen as an evolutionary trait, developed to solve complex problems.

The logics behind this hypothesis was that rumination, a salient trait of depression, allowed for a kind of concentration on one single problem that was absolutely necessary to solve certain complex issues. The study cites the following benefits of depression:

First, depression promotes analysis, which is not usually thought to be unproductive. Second, depression may help people solve the problems that triggered their depressive episode. This has been supported directly by experiment… Finally, if depressive cognition were generally unproductive, then the disruption of depressive rumination should be associated with better outcomes. But, if anything, the reverse appears to be true.

While this evolutionary theory-supported study was mainly theoretical, the new Swiss-German-American study about the relationships between depression and certain cognitive abilities is eminently practical.

A group of people diagnosed with depression, a group of individuals recovering from depression and a control group of non-depressed subjects were presented with a computer-based simulation of a standard job applicant selection problem. Virtual applicants were presented accompanied by a number, which indicated each applicant´s ranking in relation to the other candidates that had already applied, while their true ranking within the whole group of 40 candidates remained unknown.

As scientists have identified the optimal strategy for choosing the best candidates, such a test allows for the precise measuring of certain cognitive abilities, namely, sequential decision making skills.

The study indicated that “sequential decision making may represent a class of problems where depression leads to increased performance.”

The interesting thing about this study is that it presents data that has been proven to be significant within a very controlled environment, and using rigorous subject selection. Therefore, it becomes sufficiently reliable evidence that, much as Andrews and his colleagues proclaimed in 2009, there is some kind of positive correlation between depression and the ability to solve certain types of problems.

In fact, the relationship between depression and intelligence can be seen from many angles. There are studies about gifted individuals for whom a high IQ is often connected to a proclivity to suffer from depression symptoms, but there is also research that argues that intelligence “may buffer the depressogenic effect of stressful life events.”

This debate will continue to evolve, inasmuch as “major depression is the most common psychiatric diagnosis worldwide.” If there are certain advantages to being blue, then any therapeutic attempts at recovery must necessarily embrace and put to use these positive aspects, in order to neutralize that feeling of doors banging in your face, as Sylvia Plath would put it.

It would seem that while depression closes a door, it is opening these tiny windows, and knowing where that gust of fresh air is coming from may become crucial to inform treatments as well as the people who are trying to deal with it themselves.


von Helversen B, Wilke A, Johnson T, Schmid G, & Klapp B (2011). Performance benefits of depression: Sequential decision making in a healthy sample and a clinically depressed sample. Journal of abnormal psychology PMID: 21500878

Andrews, P., & Thomson, J. (2009). The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116 (3), 620-654 DOI: 10.1037/a0016242

Andrews, P.W., Silberg, J., Eaves, L. Intelligence May Buffer the Depressogenic Effects of Social Stress in Adolescents. International Society of Intelligence Research, Sixth Conference, Albuquerque 2005.

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA, holds a Masters in Creative Writing. She has directed two documentaries shot in psychiatric wards and a feature documentary about the 77-year old senior Decathlon champion of the world, Raul. Her last production is Monstruo, a short film about non-voluntary euthanasia. She is the CEO of Uruguayan film production company Nektar FIlms. You may visit her blog at The Wander Life
See All Posts By The Author