Fair warning: there’s a lot of links in this post, and they’re not there to be pretty.

There’s been some discussion on ScienceBlogs of Jonah Lehrer’s recent piece for the NYTimes, a review of depression and rumination and some mildly interesting thoughts on why rumination may confer an evolutionary advantage, thus preserving depression through evolution. Like most evolutionary psych theories, I think this is sort of pretty much bunk–a trait just doesn’t have to kill you off before you reproduce to be kept in the gene pool. Hell, even if it does kill you off, if your sibling has that gene but not expressed in the same manner and they reproduce, the gene can be passed on without issues. A really interesting book about genetics and disease states that I would highly reccomend is Survival of the Sickest.

That drifted off topic pretty quickly.

Okay, so the article is about rumination in depression and how it serves an essential function: for people with reactive depressions (that is, depression because something in their life sucks, like a pet or close friend or family member dying or being diagnosed with a serious illness or losing a job, as opposed to depression strictly caused by a chemical imbalance), the process of rumination helps alleviate the depression itself. Rumination is going over and over and over a scenario or comment or anything in in the past repeatedly. People who tend to be ruminative thinkers are more likely to be depressed, though it’s not completely clear if this is because ruminative thought processes lead to depression (otherwise known as dwelling on shitty stuff in life) or if people who are depressed turn to rumination.

I think it’s pretty simple to draw a parallel here to perseveration, or doing/thinking/saying something over and over again. It is also important to note that a large number of people on the autism spectrum do struggle with depression and/or anxiety. I would like to suggest that the broader thinking style is perseverative, and rumination (focus on events in the past) and worry (focus on events in the future) are just two subtypes of this broader thinking style. It doesn’t occur in just people on the autism spectrum: people with ADD (especially the inattentive/not hyperactive types) and people with ocd experience it, too. It seems that the broader neurodiverse community has at least a passing familiarity with this so-called autistic trait that we tend to assume must be unique to us as a group. Hell, even neurotypical people perseverate (though because they’re NT we kindly don’t label it as if it’s something bad or wrong or symptomatic).

So rumination allows (at least some) people who are depressed to focus and solve whatever problem it is that is causing their depression. People who are on the spectrum or otherwise neurodiverse use perseveration in much the same way at least some of the time–and sometimes, perhaps, it traps us into a negative thinking pattern which results in depression. Perhaps we are more inclined to perseveration/rumination/what have you being our thinking style overall. While not being able to turn off this compulsive drive can lead to problems, I think it’s certainly true that it can also lead to victories. We likely would not have some of our scientific achievements without people who perseverated the crap out of their topic of choice. On a more personal level, perseveration allows me to work through my thoughts and sort them into a coherent form that I can easily access and share with others. Yes, it can trap me into nonfuctional routines, food choices, or thinking patterns, but it is also rewarding. Perseveration taught me to draw well (I wonder if my parents still have any of the literally hundreds of variations I did of a single girl copied out of a book my dad had), probably had a part in my extreme early literacy, produced some of my best fiction writing. Perseverative thinking produced this blog post.

I don’t think we necessarily need to have an evolutionary explanation for why rumination (and as suggested by the article, depression) happens. Like many traits found within the non-neurotypical portion of neurodiversity, I think a tendency to be ruminative is just a part of the broader human experience. This makes labelling it a problem within the non-NT part of the population pretty obnoxious, though: because it is our primary thinking style rather than an accessory thinking style, we suddenly have problematic thinking. It is important to separate out the thinking style (perseverative) from the problems that can result. My way of thinking isn’t a problem. My choice of topics of what to think about (inasmuch as they are a choice) can be.

I’m not sure how to write a good transition here, so just go with me.

Also common in non-NTs are difficulties with executive function. This is basically the part of your brain that plans, that does a lot of abstract thinking, that allows for flexibility rather than adherence to routine, that helps keep your working memory strong. To varying degrees, most people on the spectrum seem to have some difficulties with executive function. It is also a major problem in depression for a lot of people.

What if perseveration is used to help overcome executive dysfunction?

What actually brought this to mind was an article in Real Simple, a magazine I flipped through at my mom’s house. It reminded me of information I already know, but had forgotten (ha!): there are a couple different theories of what working memory IS out there, but they all seem to agree that to move something from working memory to actual kept knowledge requires effort–repetitions, emotional involvement, word tricks.

Yes, that’s right, working memory often requires repetitive processing of information to transfer that information to long-term memory and become part of a person’s knowledge base. And that, if you are lucky enough to be non-neurotypical, is often called “perseveration.” Or rumination. If people with executive dysfunctions (spectrumites, depressed people, people with OCD, Tourette’s, ADHD, whatever) are also more likely to have ruminative thought processes, and we know that at least a little bit of rumination/perseveration can help assist along working memory (an executive function), then it seems like there should be studies on the effects of perseverative thinking in overcoming executive functioning problems for, well, everyone with executive functioning problems!

I totally see my postdoc right here, guys. Now I need to get into med school.

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5 Responses to what does it take to stop getting carried away?

  1. Lindsay says:

    … a trait just doesn’t have to kill you off before you reproduce to be kept in the gene pool. Hell, even if it does kill you off, if your sibling has that gene but not expressed in the same manner and they reproduce, the gene can be passed on without issues.

    Yes! This is one of the things that always annoys me about people’s armchair theorizing about human evolution (and it’s by no means restricted to ev-psych; you see this sometimes in discussions of physical traits as well): magical thinking about natural selection. They have to come up with evolutionary advantages for every random trait they can think of, because if it something weren’t advantageous, the Natural Selection Fairies would’ve zapped it, wouldn’t they???

  2. [...] intellectual information coming in–and going out, such as via blogging–to feed my own ruminative processes. Not only do I think they are a good thing, I now think they are essential to my well-being. When I [...]

  3. [...] own early signs of a life-long sprint from black clouds, but apparently the part of my brain that ruminates without my knowledge was busy at work on something altogether [...]

  4. Sue says:

    I know this blog is old, but I needed it now and am grateful it’s here. I’ve never been diagnosed as a non-neurotypical, but I have suffered from perseverative/ruminative thiinking for as long as I can remember. For some reason, the old lightbulb just went off, illuminating the connnection between rumination and depression. I googled it, and voila(!) ~ this article emerged. Thanks, Ali, for the insight on rumination/perseveration as a helpful tool which can enable one to combat difficulties with working memory, another area of difficulty for me. P.S. My sister (age 52) was recently diagosed with autism. Go figure.

  5. Ali says:

    No worries, Sue. I’m glad I was able to help a little! This is one of my big areas of interest that I’d like to do proper research work on in the future.