Radical Moderates, Depressive Realism, & Visionary Pessimism

Depression is an odd thing. It is one of the most debilitating ‘diseases’ that mostly goes unseen.

A depressed person can appear normal and even someone in a severe depressive state can hide how bad it is. This is why suicides can surprise so many people, sometimes as if it came out of nowhere. Some depressives can hide their depression from their own awareness, burying themselves in work or distracting themselves with addiction.

It is also one of the least sexy of the mental illnesses. It’s not as fascinating as schizophrenia or multiple personal disorder. It only reaches the level of melodrama if depression is of the bipolar variety. But unipolar depression is actually rather boring. The only time it becomes romanticized is in the writings of famous authors, especially if they are alcoholics who kill themselves.

As for normal people, depression is more likely to increase one’s invisibility, because the depressive withdraws from the world, sometimes to the point of becoming unemployed or even homeless. The depressive, when pushed to the extreme, can become an isolated non-entity. The depressive rarely commits suicide in direct fashion (surprisingly difficult to achieve), instead preferring to slowly kill themselves through lack of taking care of their own basic needs. Sustaining bodily existence isn’t always a central concern for the severe depressive, whether or not they commit self-harm.

Still, for someone familiar with depression, there are some aspects of it that fascinate. The withdrawl from the world isn’t just social but also psychological. Experience loses meaning and emotion. The world can feel empty and lifeless. The sense of self shrinks, sometimes to the point of disappearing. At the lowest of low points, depression swallows the person whole. It can be a truly stark state of mind, everything cut down to its minimal essence, even the voice in one’s head gone silent and no outside voice able to reach into that silence.

As one person described it, “Because I had no self. No safe space inside. Just despair.” The self ultimately can’t function in isolation, as relationship is the lifeblood of our humanity. It is utter alienation, disconnection between self and other, and so disconnection within the self, an implosion of one’s existence: “Alienation—feelings of estrangement from some aspect of a person’s existence (nature, others, and self)—results in loneliness, emptiness, and despair and is the antithesis of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world.” One then inhabits a dead world.

This seems the opposite of something like schizophrenia. In schizophrenia there is a conflation of or blurring between self and world. Rather than loss of meaning, there is an explosion of meaning. Voices don’t stay contained to self or other. It’s true that schizophrenics can experience depressive symptoms. But I suspect it it is a far different kind of experience. Interestingly, treating schizophrenia can lead to depressive-like symptoms as side effects:

“Also, the antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia may produce side effects which are very similar to depressive symptoms. These side effects may include limited spontaneity in the person’s speech and movements, restlessness, and a negative mood.”

This is what fascinates me, anyway. I don’t know schizophrenia on a personal level. But I do know depression. The problem of depression is the opposite of not knowing how to differentiate the real from the imaginary—the mundane reality feeling all too real to the point of being stifling, a sense of unavoidable and irresolvable actuality, just is. If anything, imagination gets shut down or submerged into the background. Some have argued that this is depressive realism, most specifically in terms of self-awareness and self-assessment, what is and has been, although the evidence is mixed. Even an optimism proponent like Martin Seligman, in The Optimistic Child (p. 296), discussed the merits of pessimism:

Supporting evidence for depressive realism can flooding in: Depressed people are accurate judges of how much skill they have, whereas non-depressed people think they are more skilful than others think them to be (80% of American men think they are in the top half of social skills). Non-depressed people remember more good events than actually happened and forget more of the bad events. Depressed people are accurate about both. Non-depressed people are lopsided about their beliefs about success and failure: if rewards occur – they claim the credit, the rewards will last and they’re good at everything; but if it was a failure, you did it to them, it’s going away quickly, and it was just this one little thing. Depressed people are even handed about success and failure.

The unipolar depressive has fewer extremes of emotional affect (i.e., emotional numbing and flattening) and so maybe fewer other extremes as well, which could express as ‘moderate’ (i.e., emotionally detached) views and opinions, the unipolar depressive simply not getting all that excited about and emotionally invested in externalities, a pervasive disinterest and indifference. This may have something to do with why political moderates are less happy than political extremists, the latter tending toward partisanship and dogmatism (the loyal followers and true believers). In turn, this might be why liberals are less happy than conservatives, as liberalism (specifically as liberal-mindedness) predisposes one to questioning the status quo, doubting social norms, challenging authority, and pushing boundaries.

In a world dominated by a status quo of extremists (extreme in attitude and demagoguery, not in breadth of political spectrum), the moderate liberal will be the least happy person around. Or is it the least happy will simply turn to moderate and liberal views, not out of ideological principle but just basic psychological bias? Either way, when extremists are in power, moderation becomes a radical act and so moderate in that case doesn’t mean centrist and mainstream. The problem, as always, is the loudmouthed and sometimes violent extremists get all the attention, and they are more zealously motivated to take power and enforce social norms. The moderate too often remains silent or is silenced, because to speak out is to become a target of extremists and those who will openly support moderation and defend moderates are unfortunately too few.

In this context, there is an insightful commentary about depression and autism, in the context of nerd identity:

“Communal belief – social reality – and the sacrednesses that it produces are precisely the powerful layers of distortion that we are likely to notice (and hence have a chance at seeing through). We are less able than normal humans to perceive social/sacredness reality in the first place, and to make matters worse, we are addicted to the insight rewards that come from trying to see through it even further. Autism is overrepresented in our community; depression, too. Autism is associated with a reduced ability to model other brains in the normal, social way; this failure carries even into modeling the mind of God, as autism is inversely linked to belief in God. The autistic person is more likely than the neurotypical to notice that social reality exists; we might say the autistic person gets a lucid dreaming reality check for the great social dream with every inscrutable (to him) human action he witnesses.

“Mild depression removes pleasurable feelings from everyday life; it interferes with a mechanism for sacredness-maintenance distinct from the theory of mind path autism blocks. Meaning is deconstructed in depression; social connection is weakened. Ideas and things that for normal individuals glow with significance appear to the depressed person as empty husks. The deceptive power of social and sacredness illusions is weakened for the depressed person (as are certain other healthy illusions, such as the illusion of control). This is not necessarily a victory for him, as self-deception is strongly related to happiness; the consolation of insight may not make up for the loss of sacredness in terms of individual happiness. The characteristic that distinguishes us is not necessarily a good thing. Our overdeveloped, grotesque insight reward seeking is likely maladaptive, and is probably not even doing our individual selves any good. Extremists – those most capable of perceiving social/sacred reality – are happiest.

This relates to defensive pessimism. It isn’t just about an attitude but also behavior. Depending on the task and context, defensive pessimists can be as or more effective than strategic optimists. But it is true that optimists will be more successful specifically in fields where selling oneself is a priority to success. A pessimist will be honest and accurate in their self-appraisal, not always a recipe for success in a Social Darwinian (pseudo-)meritocracy.

As such, optimists are better able to make positive change from within the system. They have a less antagonistic relationship to the status quo and to the ruling authorities that maintain the status quo. They look on the bright side of the way things are, looking for opportunities to exploit rather than fundamental problems to explore. So, they are more likely to be successful in socially acceptable ways. They’re less likely to rock the boat.

Major changes that challenge the entire social order and dominant paradigm, however, would require a different kind of mindset. That is where depressive realism might have the advantage. Many radical and revolutionary thinkers were highly critical and often antagonistic. They saw what was wrong with the present, which motivated them to imagine alternatives.

This could explain someone like Thomas Paine—he came to be hated by so many, even as he was proven correct in his visions and fears of the fate of the United States. His critical attitude was too demanding and uncompromising. He cut right through the bullshit and so had a way of making many people feel uncomfortable and irritated. In common parlance, he was an asshole with a sharp tongue.

Nothing ever seemed to quite work out for Paine in his personal life, with much unhappiness from early on and into his old age, a failure by mainstream accounts. He was profoundly dissatisfied with the way the world was. This is what fueled his outrage and made him a visionary, not a mere optimist. But, oddly, I don’t think he ever wanted to be a radical—like John Dickinson who also was Quaker raised, Paine spent his life trying to moderate a world of destabilizing and often horrific extremes. Such moderation is rarely taken kindly and, by both extremes, is seen as extreme. Religious and atheists, reactionary right and Jacobin left— they all attacked him with equal fervor.

Depressive realism can shut down imagination. But not always. Sometimes depression opens up the vista of imagination by forcing one to question hidden biases and assumptions. It forces one to stand back, which allows the opportunity to see a greater view. Seeing reality in the present more clearly can lead one to see reality in entirely new ways.

Seeking the first kind of change will tend toward happiness. The second kind less likely so. But there is more to life than happiness.

7 thoughts on “Radical Moderates, Depressive Realism, & Visionary Pessimism

  1. There is one commonality between depression and schizophrenia. Both involve the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). But there is an obvious difference in what is happening with the ACC. Consider the fact that liberals have on average a larger ACC and higher rates of depression. I don’t quite understand what this means. It is more clear the relation of ACC to schizophrenia.


    “The ACC has a variety of functions in the brain, including error detection, conflict monitoring1, and evaluating or weighing different competing choices. It’s also very important for both emotion regulation and cognitive control (often referred to as ‘executive functioning’)—controlling the level of emotional arousal or response to an emotional event (keeping it in check), as to allow your cognitive processes to work most effectively.

    “When there is a flow of ambiguous information, the ACC helps to discern whether the bits of info are relevant or not, and assigns them value. People with some forms of schizophrenia, Paranoid Type, for instance, typically have a poorly functioning ACC, so they have trouble discerning relevant patterns from irrelevant ones, giving equal weight to all of them. Someone can notice lots of bizarre patterns—that alone isn’t pathological—but you need to know which ones are meaningful. The ACC helps to decide which patterns are worth investigating and which ones are just noise. If your brain assigned relevance to every detectable pattern, it would be pretty problematic. We sometimes refer to this as having paranoid delusions. You need that weeding out process to think rationally.”

    Here is something that fits into my speculations. Depression and schizophrenia are far apart on the religious experience spectrum. They might even be different on the ideological spectrum.


    “Previc’s review of religiosity and mental disorders also adds fuel to the fire of a schizophrenic-conservative link. Previc writes “psychotic delusions are a common feature of mania, [temporal lobe epileptic] psychosis, and paranoid schizophrenia…all of these disorders are to varying degrees associated with overactivity of the fronto-temporal pathways (mostly on the left side), elevated [dopamine], and a bias toward extrapersonal space”.

    “Previc then goes on to make the connection between the above mental disorders and religiosity: “the limited evidence to date indicates that persons suffering from mania are much more likely than normals to profess a belief in major religious tenets….Religious delusions and hallucinations were reported by 90% of bipolar manic patients…manic patients were second only to schizophrenics in their religious experiences and ranked …ahead of patients with seizure disorders, depression, personality disorders, and anxiety disorders”.

    “Previc makes a mild case for a connection between OCD and religiosity: “there is undeniably at least a moderate relationship between OCD and religiosity, in that obsessive traits are much more common in highly religious persons”. But his case for a schizophrenic connection to religiosity is much stronger: “schizophrenia, especially of the paranoid variety, is the clinical disorder most clearly linked to hyperreligiosity….Because schizophrenia additionally represents the disorder most closely aligned with extrapersonal space, it is arguably the most valuable disorder for understanding the relationship between religious activity and extrapersonal brain mechanisms”.

    “Previc continues “as with schizophrenia in general, functional imaging studies point to a left-temporal predominance for delusions of a religious nature”. Previc then discusses the well-known link between temporal lobe epilepsy and religiosity: “…TLE is associated with hyperreligiosity and further argued the hyperreligiosity was more likely to occur in left-sided TLE”.

    “The evidence is certainly consistent with the elevated political conservatism-schizophrenic link noted in the Frumkin and Ibrahim study, and also (presumably) in the Lohse study. The conservatives seem to be more prone to mental disorders of the left hemisphere, while, based on the evidence we’ve gathered, liberals are more prone towards depression and anxiety disorders, which are predominately right hemispheric in origin. The mental disorder evidence supports both Brack’s hemisphericity theory of political orientation and Previc’s dopaminergic-spatial theory of religiosity.”

    • Well, it does seem depressing. But I’m already biased toward depression. As soon as I gain consciousness in the morning, any thought that pops into my head about this country and the state of the world makes me depressed.

      The main problem with depression is that it leads one to constantly think about depressing things, almost against one’s will. I try to resist the temptation of obsessing over the negative, because it is way to easy to do.

      The main reason I’m a radical is so that I can spend my time imagining possible societies that wouldn’t be so despair-inducing. I try to redirect my depressive realism toward possibilities, of how society could get from here to there. It’s a challenging hobby, but it keeps me distracted.

  2. The Master and His Emissary:
    The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
    by Iain McGilchrist
    pp. 84-85

    The right hemisphere is also more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware, than the left hemisphere. 452 The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its short-comings. When patients who have had a right-hemisphere stroke are offered constructive guidance about their performance it makes little impact. 453 In the words of one researcher into head injury, ‘children with right-brain deficit disorder ignore task obstacles, accept impossible challenges, make grossly inadequate efforts, and are stunned by the poor outcomes. These children act fearless because they overlook the dangers inherent in the situation.’ 454 A highly intelligent professional described by Stuss was completely unaware of his lack of capacity to do his job after the removal of a tumour in the right prefrontal cortex. When asked to role-play as an occupational health adviser to someone with his problems, he appropriately advised medical retirement, but when asked to apply this insight to his own situation he was completely unable to do so. 455 There are many similar case reports. 456

    Although relatively speaking the right hemisphere takes a more pessimistic view of the self, it is also more realistic about it. 457 There is evidence that (a) those who are somewhat depressed are more realistic, including in self-evaluation; and, see above, that (b) depression is (often) a condition of relative hemisphere asymmetry, favouring the right hemisphere. 458 Even schizophrenics have more insight into their condition in proportion to the degree that they have depressive symptoms. 459 The evidence is that this is not because insight makes you depressed, but because being depressed gives you insight. 460

    Insight into illness generally is dependent on the right hemisphere, and those who have damage to the right hemisphere tend to deny their illness – the wellrecognised, and extraordinary phenomenon of anosognosia, in which patients deny or radically minimise the fact that they have, for example, a blatant loss of use of what may be one entire half of the body. 461 A patient with a completely paralysed (left) limb may pointedly refuse to accept that there is anything wrong with it, and will come up with the most preposterous explanations for why he is not actually able to move it on request. This happens to some degree in the majority of cases after a stroke affecting the left side of the body (involving right-hemisphere damage), but practically never after a right-sided stroke (involving left-hemisphere damage). The phenomenon of denial can be temporarily reversed by activating the affected right hemisphere. 462 Equally, denial of illness (anosognosia) can be induced by anaesthetising the right hemisphere. 463

    Note that it is not just a blindness, a failure to see – it’s a wilful denial. Hoff and Pötzl describe a patient who demonstrates this beautifully: ‘On examination, when she is shown her left hand in the right visual field, she looks away and says ‘I don’t see it.’ She spontaneously hides her left hand under the bedclothes or puts it behind her back. She never looks to the left, even when called from that side.’ 464 If forced to confront the affected limb, there is not infrequently a sense of revulsion from it, known as misoplegia: if the examiner puts the patient’s own left hand in her right hand, ‘she takes hold of it only to drop it immediately with an expression of disgust’. 465

    In right-hemisphere lesions, there is not only denial or indifference in the face of incapacity, but sometimes a disturbance of mood ‘reminiscent of the fatuousness of those with frontal lesions: euphoria, joviality, a penchant for feeble puns’. One of the patients reported by Hécaen and de Ajuriaguerra, who had complete hemi-asomatognosia caused by a parietal tumour ‘exhibited a surprising joviality, at the same time complaining of a fierce headache.’ 466

    Denial is a left-hemisphere speciality: in states of relative right-hemisphere inactivation, in which there is therefore a bias toward the left hemisphere, subjects tend to evaluate themselves optimistically, view pictures more positively, and are more apt to stick to their existing point of view. 467 In the presence of a right-hemisphere stroke, the left hemisphere is ‘crippled by naively optimistic forecasting of outcomes’. 468 It is always a winner: winning is associated with activation of the left amygdala, losing with right amygdala activation. 469

    There are links here with the right hemisphere’s tendency to melancholy. If there is a tendency for the right hemisphere to be more sorrowful and prone to depression, this can, in my view, be seen as related not only to being more in touch with what’s going on, but more in touch with, and concerned for, others. ‘No man is an island’: it is the right hemisphere of the human brain that ensures that we feel part of the main. The more we are aware of and empathically connected to whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, the more we are likely to suffer. Sadness and empathy are highly correlated: this can be seen in studies of children and adolescents. 470 There is also a direct correlation between sadness and empathy, on the one hand, and feelings of guilt, shame and responsibility, on the other. 471 Psychopaths, who have no sense of guilt, shame or responsibility, have deficits in the right frontal lobe, particularly the right ventromedial and orbitofrontal cortex. 472

    Perhaps to feel at all is inevitably to suffer. The Greek word pathe, feeling, is related to pathos, an affliction, and to paschein, to suffer: the same roots are in our word ‘passion’ (and a similar development leads to the German word for passions, Leidenschaften, from the root leiden, to suffer). This is just one reason to doubt the easy equation between pleasure and happiness, on the one hand, and ‘the good’, on the other.

  3. The Master and His Emissary:
    The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
    by Iain McGilchrist
    pp. 456-457

    Emphasis on high self-esteem as a sign of mental health is a relatively recent, Western phenomenon, and is far from being an unmixed good. Having low self-esteem, certainly in the West, is an obvious cause of anxiety and depression; but high self-esteem is positively correlated with a tendency to be unrealistic, to take offence too easily, and to become violent and demanding if one’s needs are not met. 81 Whereas in America students seek positive self-regard, the Japanese are more self-critical, an attitude which they sense to have a natural wisdom. 82 The need for positive self-regard, as it is currently conceptualized, is not a universal, but rooted in significant aspects of North American culture. 83 People in the West characteristically over-estimate their abilities, exaggerate their capacity to control essentially uncontrollable events, and hold over-optimistic views of the future. In fact, so much does our happiness depend on such illusions, that, in the West, lacking them is even correlated with psychiatric problems. 84

    This is not true in Japan, where self-worth is not predicated on thinking highly of yourself, but on being a good citizen and member of your social group. Although the Japanese report being proud and happy to be associated with a prestigious college or organisation, they do not hold unrealistically positive opinions about the group to which they belong. Although they set higher standards for themselves, and aspire to higher personal goals, than, for example, Canadian students, they more rarely feel depressed about their failures to measure up. In the West, failure tends to lead to discouragement; in the East, to a determination to do better. 85 The espousal of unrealistic expectations in the absence of a readiness to make sacrifices may be one of the most significant factors in the escalating rates of depression in developed, and developing, countries referred to above.

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