Depression and Intuition.
‘Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.’ - Jean Luc Godard
[This article is part of a continuing series on the interrelated topics of attention, spirituality, mental health, society and technology]
Our brains take infinitely complex inputs and distil them down to what we need to survive in our daily lives. This is generally a good thing; neuroscientist David Eagleman notes that the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to us is less than a ten-trillionth of it. I think the fact that our vision seems so good actually blinds us to all the other facets of reality we don’t even know we’re missing. Yes, our brains are the most complex objects in the known universe, but they are also moist fleshy lumps encased in a dark skull. We’re like security guards sitting in a stuffy room watching a bank of grainy CCTV feeds, all while thinking we see the whole world outside. Whatever selectively makes it through to us is what we’ve evolved best to see, not the entirety of what there actually is. An earthworm, a bat and a blue whale all have radically different sensory experiences, but they would all think they are experiencing the ‘real’ world.
In processing reality we also impose narratives and stories on it. It helps explain our continuity in time, and why things are causally happening. Stories are an imperfect attempt to approximate the fuller expanse of reality. It’s a bit like how CNBC tries to tell you why the stock market went up or down on a given day. Comforting, but not always anything close to what actually happened. This is also generally a good thing, if we had to constantly recreate our relationship with the world every time we woke up in the morning we’d never get anything done.
However, serious problems arise when our internal narrative gets too fixed and increasingly fails to match external reality. As an excellent recent article in Aeon puts it, ‘people with severe depression have often formed a precise expectation of their own behaviours and responses — a predictive self-model that actively inhibits the joyful or playful exploration of their worlds, and which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy of powerlessness and retreat.’
More specifically, it can manifest in an inability to contemplate alternative futures; just an infinite extrapolation of the present purgatory.
This ‘closed network’ conceptualization has support from a scientific understanding of complex systems. As John Arden writes in Mind, Body, Gene:
‘Complex adaptive systems are by nature open systems. We need interaction with the environment to grow and change. Closed systems, by contrast, are isolated, with no exchange of information with the environment. They are forced to feed on themselves. From a psychological perspective, depression, with its associated behaviors of withdrawal, isolation, and lack of effort, may be thought of as promoting a closed system.’
Iain McGilchrist’s spectacular book The Master and His Emissary makes the compelling claim that the two hemispheres of our brains not only have different capabilities, but differing characters and goals as well. He argues that real world experience originates in the right hemisphere of the brain, is moved to the left for processing, then returned to the right for synthesis into its global context. He repeatedly emphasizes that the left-hemispherical intellect is a very limited tool. But it THINKS it knows a lot more than it actually does. It’s playing around in that dark skull adamant that it sees and knows everything outside. The left hemisphere cooks different meals with the same 4 ingredients, while the right hemisphere can go outside to the whole supermarket.
‘The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really ‘break out’ to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own re-presentations only.’
If you become hemispherically unbalanced, your experience of life starts to mimic the closed, lifeless system of the left. This has become much more than a metaphor: a generation of hopeless young men around the developed world have now withdrawn to dark basements. Their existence is mediated by screens showing digital simulations of real life. Something indescribable is lost in transmission which makes these ersatz digital solutions insufficient. Technology promises all the inner nutrition of challenge, connection, community and love. Instead it offers only empty calories. And so we find ourselves full of information but starving for connection. No wonder many of these desperate men turn against life itself.
Although powerful, the left-hemispheric means of interacting with the world strips it of its ineffable vitality. The security guard can’t smell the cut grass or feel the sun on his face. It’s a limited tool that doesn’t know it’s own limitations; as Michael Singer writes:
‘You have given your mind an impossible task by asking it to manipulate the world in order to fix your personal inner problems. If you want to achieve a healthy state of being, stop asking your mind to do this… In fact, your mind is innocent. The mind is simply a computer, a tool. It can be used to ponder great thoughts, solve scientific problems, and serve humanity. But you, in your lost state, told it to spend its time conjuring up outer solutions for your very personal inner problems. You are the one who is trying to use the analytical mind to protect yourself from the natural unfolding of life.’
‘Anhedonia’ is a specific kind of spiritual depression that describes a kind of joyless drifting. I see this as an affliction that reflects an over-intellectualization of the world. Of course the left-hemisphere can’t find any meaning in life: it’s not directly connected to it! That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; it means we find it through re-engagement.
The prescription is thus to integrate the mediator and connect it back to source. But McGilchrist argues that the rational mind only reluctantly relinquishes control of the steering wheel; the servant has overthrown the master. Thus when it can feel like there is a force within us operating at odds with our own best interests, this is a possible explanation. I think that this is part of the principle behind Zen. As Osho writes in Intuition: ‘When your mind gets exhausted and cannot do any more, it simply retires. In that moment of retirement the inner guide can give hints, clues, keys.’
This made me wonder if there was therefore a purpose to depression and the dark night of the soul. Is this perhaps a mechanism where the right and left hemispheres duke it out for supremacy? The agonizing thought loops of depression and constant gnawing anxiety would appear to support this conceptualization. The left hemisphere has greater access to language; simplistically it’s the dominant “voice in your head”. When those loops become repetitive and deafening it feels like the left is trying to drown out the still, small voice of the right. As Joseph Campbell said: ‘One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.’
Perhaps the suicidal person wishes less for their own death, but for peace from the autocratic tyranny of the thinking mind. However, as a culture we are so identified with linguistic thought that we cannot differentiate between the wish for serenity and the desperation for our own death.
Like the security guard in the stuffy room, one can imagine that the left-brained ego sees itself as protecting us: protecting us from uncertainty, from risk and from the seemingly irrational action that springs from intuition. Our predominantly left-hemispherical society has exquisitely optimized for comfort, with death and mortality perpetually hidden from view. Progress means embracing the uncomfortable or irrational; and they are often identical. It brings to mind the wonderful line from Brené Brown that ‘your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts.’ Awakening to her own vulnerability led to a breakdown.
Jung describes a liminal period of agonizing stuck-ness preceding individuation. Seen in the context of McGilchrist’s theory, this is the left-hemisphere repeatedly bumping up against the labyrinthine walls of its own limitations. Mary Louise Von Franz describes it thus:
‘Jung has said that to be in a situation where there is no way out, or to be in a conflict where there is no solution, is the classical beginning of the process of individuation. It is meant to be a situation without solution: the unconscious wants the hopeless conflict in order to put ego-consciousness up against the wall, so that the man has to realise that whatever he does is wrong, whichever way he decides will be wrong. This is meant to knock out the superiority of the ego, which always acts from the illusion that it has the responsibility of decision.’
In his unsettling book Outwitting The Devil, Napoleon Hill describes his own crisis in the same terms. It was, aptly, a period of depression, laziness, indecision and fear. ‘I felt myself in the clutches of some depressing influence which seemed like a nightmare. I was alive; I could move around, but I could not think of a single move by which I might continue to seek the goal which I had’
This decline was only arrested after his ‘inner self’ took over the reigns and instructed him to drive to Philadelphia to try and get his book published.
I’m not necessarily advocating waiting around for this “mysterious voice” to bail you out. This is a precarious approach, as without the subtle discernment of intuition we might flail around aimlessly, doing deliberately irrational but destructive things simply to escape the quicksand of depression.
But does rationally knowing we have to reach rock bottom prevent us from reaching true rock bottom? There’s also the paradoxical situation that the path out of the labyrinth requires seemingly-irrational action. We have to be sure.
The question that has occupied me for years is; how do we connect with intuition? By definition, intuition seems impervious to an analytical, intellectual approach. A wild stallion that can never be broken by the thinking mind. Osho draws an interesting distinction between the means of superseding rationality through ‘yoga’ or short-circuiting it through Zen. Funnily enough, he uses a pretty similar hemispheric characterization as McGilchrist.
‘Yoga is an effort to reach the oneness of being through the left hemisphere, using logic, mathematics, science, and trying to go beyond. Zen is just the opposite: the aim is the same, but Zen uses the right hemisphere to go beyond. Both can be used, but to follow Yoga is a very, very long path; it is almost an unnecessary struggle because you are trying to reach from reason to superreason, which is more difficult. Zen is easier because it is an effort to reach the superreason from irreason. Irreason is almost like superreason — there are no barriers. Yoga is like penetrating a wall and Zen is like opening a door.’
I don’t mean to suggest that we can easily meditate ourselves out of depression. Maybe that’s possible, but I think it’s somewhat glib for those that are truly suffering. The goal isn’t necessarily enlightenment, again it’s more hemispheric balance; opening to the mystery, easing the rigidity. Returning to immediate experience over the lifeless, imposed story. It’s perhaps useful to understand that deliberately trying to transcend rationality using your intellect is like using a spotlight to find the night. Moreover- constant introspection and self-analysis may make the situation worse. “Why can’t I think my way to happiness?!” It’s my personal opinion that Carl Rogers was right: the principal benefit of therapy is less the analysis, more the intimacy of the direct connection between two people.
Time-and-time again embodied cognition emerges as part of the prescription. This makes total sense- the intuitive right hemisphere communicates with the transcendent and it is fundamentally embodied. It is the vitalizing source of external content that the left hemisphere interprets. Embodied activities definitely provide temporary respite from mental anguish. Osho helps us locate the sensation in our bodies:
‘When something comes from the inner, it comes from your navel upward. You can feel the flow, the warmth, coming from the navel upward. Whenever your mind thinks, it is just on the surface, in the head, and then it goes down. If your mind decided something, then you have to force it down. If your inner guide decides, then something bubbles up in you. It comes from the deep core of your being toward the mind. The mind receives it, but it is not of the mind. It comes from beyond — and that is why the mind is scared about it. For reason it is unreliable, because it comes from behind — without any reason with it, without any proofs. It simply bubbles up.’
Follow your broad, bodily attention- not where it’s being directed by external sources, but to where you find yourself repeatedly drawn. The broad awareness of the right hemisphere directs the narrow beam of the left to where it needs to focus. It’s following Ariadne’s thread to escape the labyrinth.
Part of cultivating this supra-intellectual discernment is rediscovering and respecting our heart and gut centers. As this resonant interview with Philip Shepherd notes:
‘If cranial thinking sets us apart from the world, the thinking in the belly joins us to it. If the cranial brain believes itself surrounded by a knowable world that can be controlled, the brain in our belly is in touch with the world’s mystery. The fact that the second brain has been discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered by medicine three times in the past century suggests how complicated our relationship with our bodily intelligence is.’
…Or how threatened our intellects are.
The basic conclusion: the more distance you put between yourself and the direct experience of life, the unhappier you can become.
This reminds me of the Christian concept that hell is nothing else but separation of man from God. There is bliss in connection to the universe, but our intellect, ego and language keep us separate. It’s this realization that has made me a little cautious about modern-stoic philosophies and metacognitive exercises that try to put distance between you and immediate experience.
I want to be extremely careful not to make serious depression sound like it’s something that’s easily tackled. In my experience there are periods when NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING really ‘works’ effectively. There is the slow trickle of survival. Endurance and nothing else. Time spent in screaming agony passes at a totally different pace. So just asking someone to bear days that feel more like years is a substantial ask. Medication, therapy, exercise, diet, CBT, breathwork. All potentially have a place. If it works for you, it works. If you’re going through hell, keep going.
But what do you do when absolutely nothing has worked and you’re reaching the limit of your endurance?
In a society looking for quick-fixes, any potential “hacks” should obviously be perceived skeptically. But the suffering of prolonged depression can provoke the kind of desperation you’d see in a wounded animal willing to chew its own leg off to escape a steel trap. I am certainly no expert, but psychedelics seem to be emerging as a best-case for pulling people away from the precipice (not medical advice!).
This intervention is also consistent with the more scientific “narrative” perspective from the Aeon article cited above.
‘By inducing a temporary ‘hot’ state, psychedelic drugs seem able to intervene our own high-level self-model, freeing us up to encounter the world and our sense of being in new and often helpful ways. These windows on other ways of being are not lost when the immediate effects of the drug subside but can instead mediate an empowering re-examination of our own life, goals and sense of self, other and nature.’
This ‘hot state’ fits with the emerging theory of ‘Neural Annealing’. Annealing describes the heating of a metal above its recrystallization temperature, keeping it there for long enough for the microstructure to reach equilibrium, then slowly cooling it down. This enables it to release stress and allows new patterns to crystallize. Similarly, if our brains have become rigid and imbalanced, annealing is a potential remedy. Meditation, music and psychedelics are three potential mechanisms to enter these high-energy states.
You open the doors of perception and allow for more potential narratives to come through.
If you’re suffering now, just know that you are temporarily stuck in solitary confinement. Your inability to feel, to sense, your isolation from the world, could all be a result of internal imbalance. Moreover, the hopeless despair that depression will last forever is a specific symptom that stems from a lack of connection: narrative inflexibility. Whether the cause is metaphysical, spiritual, or neurological almost doesn’t matter: pursuing reconnection is the first principle of recovery. If that doesn’t work, and you’re still adrift from the world, early indications are that psychedelics, administered by professionals in the right mindset and setting, can be life-saving. When you feel like you have nothing left to lose, they might make an excellent last resort.
You can follow me @tomowenmorgan on Twitter.
**As ever- this is not expert advice, just the thoughts of some random dude on the internet. I am always keen to be corrected, challenged and argued with.**