Black and white perception and the positive side of depression:

In popular literature, movies and theatre, the depicted characters are generally either good or bad. Everything about the good people is good. Everything about the bad people is bad. There is a hero and people on hero’s side are good. There is villain with a set of bad people on his side. The popular perception of good and bad is in black and white. In real life there are all shades of grey, but in popular perception we perceive things in black and white. In the original Mahabharata, for example, we do see the shades of grey for many of the depicted personalities. But in all folk versions of Mahabharata they are all either black or white. Most people perceive political parties and decisions the same way. They are either good or bad.

Why is the popular perception so dichotomous when in reality it is hardly so? Is it because the childhood stories are oversimplified and we grow up listening to them? Is it because things are painted in black and white in stories and movies and therefore we are trained to perceive that way? Or is it because it is in human nature that we innately perceive and label things in black and white and that is simply reflected in literature? Which way goes the arrow of causation? Are we trained to perceive things in black and white because popular literature has it so, or do we have it as an evolved innate tendency and literature only reflects that?

In the first batch of IISER, one student decided to address this question as his final year dissertation project. He had a tough time because in IISER, this was not considered a science question by most faculty. Only molecular biology was science. How can human behaviour be science? But quite undeterred, he pursued the question and had interesting findings. He asked people of various backgrounds to answer a questionnaire. In the questionnaire they had to label various entities as good, bad or shades of intermediate. The entities included mythological characters, historical characters, real life characters along with animals, trees and even non-living entities. It turned out that most people rated everything either as entirely good or entirely bad, very few opting for shades of grey. We expected that with age and with education people will become more realistic and perceive more grey shades, but age and education had little effect. We expected that mythological characters will be viewed more in black and white but real life characters more realistically. That also was not significantly true. The variance in the index of contrast was explained predominantly by the tendency of the respondents. There were some individuals that viewed different shades of grey and this they did for everything real or mythological, human or nonhuman, living or non-living. On the other hand those who viewed in black and white did so across all categories. Our interpretation of the patterns was suggestive of a primary innate human tendency being secondarily reflected in stories. It was an interesting piece of work, no doubt, but a total misfit for IISER. So he got very poor grades for not being able to do good science! Further we also could not publish this study because it did not get the ethics committee clearance.

Nevertheless, I stand amazed at the findings. For an evolutionary biologist it may not be a big surprise. Our perception has not evolved for judgment of truth. It evolved to increase individual fitness. In a social animal that we are, even individual fights quickly take the form of group conflicts. If two individuals fight, others tend to take sides. Taking a side in someone else’s fight has an advantage that you can assess, gain or strengthen your individual social rank at a lower cost. You also build bonds that will help you later if and when you are in conflict yourself. Therefore we have evolved primarily to take sides, not to make impartial judgments. However, the advantage of taking sides aggressively is negatively frequency dependent. As a result, similar to the hawk and dove game, there is frequency dependent selection for some fence-sitters as well. These are presumably people who perceive the shades of grey.

Our tendency to see things in black and white percolates to everything. Cholesterol is seen as bad, although it has so many vital metabolic functions. Dietary sugar or fat is painted as villain. Vitamins are perceived all time good, although hypervitaminosis can cause problems. In psychology people talk about “positive” and “negative” emotions. There are more deceptive terms such as positive or negative energy and so on. Reality is far different than the black and white, positive-negative perception.

Is “depression” good or bad? You might be surprised if I plead for the useful dimension of depression. Again for an evolutionary biologist, it is no surprise. Depression is an evolved state of mind and it evolved because it is adaptive. The adaptive role is quite relevant even today. Depression is demonstrably correlated to creativity and many studies show that. There are several examples of artists, writers, poets and scientists having frequent bouts of depression. The link between depression and creativity is quite natural. You are depressed when your ways to “success” (whatever it means in the prevailing context) are blocked for reasons beyond your control. This is precisely the time to try something new, something unconventional, something that would surprize everyone – perhaps your opponents. This needs creativity. So evolving a neuronal and physiological link between depression and creativity is quite logical.

There is some literature on the depression-creativity link. But there is another “positive” side to depression that I experience, and perhaps has no literature on it. Depression allows me to have a sound sleep. Rarely ever in my life worries and tensions could disturb my sleep. They say sleeplessness increases with age, but so far I have seen no signs. I can still sleep for 10 hours, if I have that much time. Because of a chronic back pain, I can’t lie down for hours. So at times I have to get up in the middle of the night. I have to stand erect, may be walk a few steps like washroom and back, or stretch the body. That generally relieves the pain. Once back to bed, within a few seconds I am fast asleep. What has made me sleepless frequently are ideas, excitements, planning new work, anticipation of exciting results, potentially path breaking results or achievements. Quite a few times solution to a long standing problem has appeared in the middle of the night. I have sometimes got up at midnight to articulate an idea, write a thought or something close to a theorem or may even be a poem.

Losing sleep for any reason is not good for health, and this is precisely where depression is helping me. After years of experience I have learnt that all those creative ideas and ingenious solutions to problems have no value in the field of research. Nobody wants any. People love problems more than solutions. Those who suffer, try to capitalize on the problem. Poor sufferers get help and charity as long as the problem exists. The rich get a big name from the little charity that they do. Journalists get breaking news from the broken people. Writers, poets and artists get a platform to sell their creations. Politicians get votes by blowing up the problem. Above all, scientists and academicians get more grants by making simple problems look complex. So everyone is happy with the problems, why would anyone want a solution?  If anybody offers a simple but effective solution, everyone will attack the solution and see to it that it won’t be allowed to work. Alternatively they will personally attack the one who suggested the solution. How a good solution can come from a bad person? We all know that this is what happens in politics. But In this regard, the field of research is no different.

Even in the field of pure science, hardly anyone is interested in fundamentally new ideas and simple solutions even when they exist. Complex problems get huge funding, so the attempt is to make a simple problem complex by generating lots of data and leaving it under-interpreted or better un-interpreted. This is precisely the on-going trend in mainstream biology. It is currently a field for data generators, not data interpreters. Complex data and complex analysis without much useful insights is what gets published routinely in all flagship journals. If simple insights are available, opportunities of huge funding would be lost. So researchers resist clean interpretations and just keep on generating complex data. Then we leave interpretations to journalists who make simple and wrong interpretations. That is what common people read and perceive as science.

The above thoughts are typical of a depressed mind that almost invariably turns sarcastic. Perhaps the field out there is not that bad, but one cannot deny that even the perspective of the depressed mind has substantial truth in it. To me the depressed interpretation helps in toning down my excitement of finding new things. Since now I know that no one cares for good science, I have stopped getting excited by new findings. I no more feel the urge to articulate ideas as they arise. I am no more eager to complete a model, write code and see the results. Ideas keep on coming as they used to, since that is in my nature, but they no more give me sleepless nights. I know I have thought of certain questions that science is unlikely to ask for a few more decades. I know I have clean interpretations of the huge amount of data messing around. But things like that hardly matter to me now. As a habit I ask questions, think of ideas, work on solutions, develop insights, stumble upon new findings. All this will continue on its own because it is natural. I won’t have to passionately do it anymore. And now, I don’t care whether it gets published or not. I am neither going to get any career advantage by publishing in a high impact journal nor will I lose anything by not getting published. So I can really enjoy doing uncompromised science, all for myself now and have a sound sleep. There is high cost in being active, creative and passionate. Depression saves the cost when returns are unlikely to come and does a balancing and optimizing job.

The dichotomy of positive and negative feelings is an illusion that we are trained to accept as truth. I just gave one example: that depression is not always bad. This is true of almost everything perceived as good or bad. The dichotomous perception of good versus bad, positive versus negative, right versus wrong, happy versus sad vanishes as you find yourself closer to reality. This reality is difficult to share with someone who has not experienced it, someone who takes the illusion of ideology as truth, someone who is still far away from truth. Most researchers live in a world of illusion of science because that gives them success. So very few researchers are likely to understand what I said in this article. Few will bother to read anyway!!

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