As well as learning from external stimuli, sometimes we learn through introspection. It’s estimated that 30-50% of people will display clinical signs of depression at some point in their lives, a debilitating condition, with no immediately apparent benefits. Much debate takes place about why, if the condition is purely negative, is it not selected against in evolution (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=depressions-evolutionary&page=2), and, although that’s not the subject of debate today, it’s worth stating that i think the situation is more complex than that simple picture would allow for.
Depression is an acutely introspective activity, leading individuals to become inward facing, shunning external contact and concentrating on problems with intense detail. It’s argued that this ‘mathematical problem solving’ element of depression is, in itself, a valuable skill, but again, that’s not the context that i’m writing about here.
Essentially, i think that depression, more than anything, promotes empathy and understanding. It’s a route to learning more about ourselves and, ultimately, other people. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s one that many people take, and there is a wider understanding that can emerge from it.
We learn many things from teachers, from books, from each other, but the lessons that we learn about empathy and understanding come from within, through introspection and reflection. It’s not knowledge that will make you a better driver or mathematician, but it might make you more likely to reach out to people, to build on commonality and the positive, rather than division and the negative. Not always, i realise. For some people, depression is a prison that they struggle to ever escape from, but in some cases, it can be different.
So much of what we learn, of what is ‘normal’, leads us to fear abnormality; to fear disability, to fear lack of control, to fear ignorance, whilst in fact, we can learn from all of these things. Not in a formal way, but in terms of our inner understanding and building empathy.
My point here is not New Age, or therapeutic, it’s more a point of reflection. I spend so much time, professionally, looking at how people learn, looking and thinking about the stimuli, working on learning methodologies and technologies, whilst sometimes forgetting to look at the person themselves.
Part of our personal development comes through formal learning, part through informal spaces and experience, but a key part through introspection. I do believe that depression changes you, but not necessarily for the worse. It’s a difficult journey, but one that can leave positive traces, increased empathy, a desire to help others chart the same waters. It’s just a thought, but there are many things that we learn from in life. Even the difficult parts.