Saturday, February 09, 2013


Honesty and Depression

A curious thing happened as I was listening to the radio Friday night. Two different shows, separated by only an hour, featured segments touching on the same general subject--what cognitive science tells us about honesty and depression.

First at 7 PM was Radiolab, replaying an episode called "Lying to Ourselves". It first aired in 2008 and featured psychologist Joanna Starek and the team of psychiatrists Harold Sackeim and Ruben Gur.  Below is a partial transcript from the last two minutes or so of the episode. 
Co-host Robert Krulwich: ... denying certain facts about the real world ... according to any number of new studies produces people who ... are better at business and better at working with teams. And now here's the real kicker: They turn out to be happier people ...

Sackeim: ... people who were happiest were the ones lying to themselves more ...

Krulwich: Time and time again, researchers have found that depressed people lie less.

Sackeim: They see all the pain in the world, how horrible people are with each other. And they tell you everything about themselves, what their weaknesses are, what terrible things they've done to other people. And the problem is, they're right. And so, maybe it's, the way we help people is to help them to be wrong.

Krulwich: It might just be that hiding ideas we know to be true, hiding those ideas from ourselves, is what we need to get by.

Sackeim: We're so vulnerable to being hurt that we're given the capacity to distort, as a gift.
Then, at 9 PM, a 2012 episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge came on. Entitled "You & Your Brain," the segment featured an interview by Senior Producer Anne Strainchamps with neuroscientist Julian Paul Keenan. Below is a partial transcript from the last three minutes or so of the interview.
Strainchamps: I just keep thinking that what you're saying is that much of our experience of life and of the world and even of ourselves is a lie.

Keenan: Yeah. And you can either be depressed about it or just go for the ride. A lot of this remains still to be confirmed and, uh, replicated, but a lot of the indications are that we are living in a deceptive world, at best, perhaps a false world in its most extreme.

Strainchamps: ... I'm trying to figure out what the consequences are of everything you've laid out. We have no free will, we're basically lying ourselves through life. What do you do with those insights? Should you just sit back and enjoy the dream or should we all be meditating very hard and trying to lose our sense of self?

Keenan: I, you know, I'm going to go with the former. I think a lot of self-deception goes a long way, that giving yourself positive affirmations in the mirror, whether you believe them or not, would probably be the route I would suggest taking. You know, surrounding yourself with people who, even though you know they're lying to you, as long as they're saying good things, that's probably a healthy way to go. The alternative scares me. We used to think people with clinical depression didn't see the world realistically, you know, they saw it in an overly negative light. Well, it turns out, they're seeing it quite realistically and it's you and I who were seeing it in an overly rosy light, we're the ones not in reality. So, the suggestion is that reality is a somewhat scary place to be.

Strainchamps: So the purpose of therapy is to learn to be better at lying.

Keenan: Absolutely. It clearly puts into question this idea of deception is morality, "Thou shalt not lie." Well, then thou shalt be depressed.
So, here's what I found striking, even disturbing, about both of these programs. No one--not the researchers, not the interviewers/hosts--ever raised the idea that the solution to the depression that realism and honesty bring to some people is not to train or encourage people to "distort" or "just go for the ride"--to engage in deception--but to work to figure out how make the world a less painful, a less  depressing place. Yes, of course, there will always be the pain of loss and death but to suggest that deception is the only desirable or viable solution for coping with "all the pain in the world" seems to me to evince a defeatism of the worst, saddest, and, ultimately, the most ethically bankrupt sort.

12 Feb 2013 Addendum: It is has been suggested to me by a friend and reader of this post that religion is a form of deception or dishonesty that people employ in order to avoid reality. I have two responses to this: First, yes, religion can be and has been used for deceptive and dishonest purposes but that is not inherent in religion; science, too, can be so used.

Second, the idea that religion is an invalid or false way of knowing about the world and that only a scientific approach can tell us anything meaningful or true about reality is itself a deception and logically invalid. The supposed conflict between science and religion is a subject I have blogged about on several occasions and my comments on it here will be brief. This viewpoint that rejects religion is known as scientism and even the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have published statements rejecting it.

I'll close with the thoughts on the subject of two noted physicists. According to Freeman Dyson:

"Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.

"Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute."

Ian Barbour writes:

"I suggest that the concept of God is not a hypothesis formulated to explain the relation between particular events in the world in competition with scientific hypotheses. Belief in God is primarily a commitment to a way of life in response to distinctive kinds of religious experience in communities formed by historic traditions; it is not a substitute for scientific research. Religious belief offers a wider framework of meaning in which particular events can be contextualized."

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One of the ways I have learned to practice honesty while at the same time avoiding a depressive state( to the extent that I have been able to) is to shift the focus of your thoughts. Rather than dwell on all of the bad, consider and focus on the good that is in your life, the good that you have done, etc. We have all done our share of both, and all have both good and bad things/situations in our lives. There is a lot of bad/depressing stuff in the world, but there is also much that is good/positive. One does not have to ignore the bad to simply place ones focus upon the good.. and if one is up to it, work to transform what is bad into what is good.
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