Maybe thatâ¿¿s why we call it a â¿¿Depressionâ¿¿
Every day, we learn more and more about the brain, and we're largely doing it largely through MRIs, CAT scans, and other electrotechnologies.
This weekâ''s New Yorker has a astonishing article, â''Hellhole,â'' by Atul Gawande, asking whether long-term confinement is torture.
Gawande notes that ever since psychologist Harry Harlowâ''s studies in the 1950s, weâ''ve known that â''simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people,â''
And it became widely accepted that children require nurturing human beings not just for food and protection but also for the normal functioning of their brains.
We have been hesitant to apply these lessons to adults. Adults, after all, are fully formed, independent beings, with internal strengths and knowledge to draw upon. We wouldnâ''t have anything like a childâ''s dependence on other people, right? Yet it seems that we do. We donâ''t have a lot of monkey experiments to call upon here. But mankind has produced tens of thousands of human ones, including in our prison system. And the picture that has emerged is profoundly unsettling.
Gawande says that studies of prisoners, both of war and criminals, â''reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.â'' He cites the case of Terry Anderson, the AP correspondent who in the 1980s was held hostage for seven years in Lebanon.
For the first few months after his release, Anderson said when I reached him by phone recently, â''it was just kind of a fog.â'' He had done many television interviews at the time. â''And if you look at me in the pictures? Look at my eyes. You can tell. I look drugged.â''
. . .
It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, â''The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? Thereâ''s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mindâ''s gone dead. God, help me.â''
And for the last 17 years, scientists have looked at the human brain itself to learn the extent to which psychological changes are mirrored in physiology.
EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.
Isolation, it turns out, isnâ''t the only thing physiologically linked to depression. Consider money, or, more precisely, the lack of it.
In â''Why money messes with your mind,â'' Mark Buchanan writes in New Scientist,
As we come to understand more about money's effect on us, it is emerging that some people's brains can react to it as they would to a drug, while to others it is like a friend. Some studies even suggest that the desire for money gets cross-wired with our appetite for food. And, of course, because having a pile of money means that you can buy more things, it is virtually synonymous with status - so much so that losing it can lead to depression and even suicide. In these cash-strapped times, perhaps an insight into the psychology of money can improve the way we deal with it.
Buchanan cites research soon to be published in Psychological Science that â''people who felt rejected by others, or were subjected to physical pain, were subsequently less likely to give a monetary gift in a game situation. The researchers then went on to show that just handling paper money could reduce the distress associated with social exclusion, and also diminish the physical pain caused by touching very hot water.â'' And he quotes researcher Stephen Lea at the University of Exeter, who believes that money
< blockquote>acts on our minds rather like an addictive drug, giving it the power to drive some of us to compulsive gambling, overwork or obsessive spending (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol 29, p 161). "It is an interesting possibility that all these are manifestations of a broader addiction to money," says Lea. blockquote>
In another set of brain imaging studies that contrasted immediate purchases with delayed ones, Samuel McClure of Princeton University found â''those who chose the instant reward brain activity showed brain activity in the areas linked with emotion, especially the limbic system, which is known to be involved in much impulsive behaviour and drug addiction.â'' Subjects who chose an opposite behavior â''showed activity in areas such as the prefrontal cortex known to be involved in rational planning.â''
So can we expect a second Economic Great Depression to trigger a global Mental Great Depression? Two things seem certain: as medical engineering progresses, those studying the brain will learn more about the physiology of our psychological states. And we will endure the financial meltdown with fewer psychological meltdowns if we face it together and fight it collectively. As the G20 meets in today in London, they must remember that the economy is a social sphere, and isolation will be traumatic.