Depression & Melancholy: Animated Videos Explain the Crucial Difference Between Everyday Sadness and Clinical Depression

“Depression,” the TED-Ed video above informs us, “is the leading cause of disability in the world.” This may be a hard fact to swallow, the product, we might think, of pharmaceutical advertising. We all feel down from time to time, we think. “Then circumstances change, and those sad feelings disappear.” Isn’t it like this for everyone? It is not. “Clinical depression is different. It’s a medical disorder, and it won’t go away just because you want it to.”

Depression can linger for up to two weeks, and become so debilitating that sufferers cannot work or play. It interferes with important relationships and “can have a lot of different symptoms: a low mood, loss of interest in things you’d normally enjoy, changes in appetite, feeling worthless or excessively guilty,” restlessness and insomnia, or extreme lethargy, poor concentration, and possible thoughts of suicide. But surely we can hear a paid promotional voice when the narrator states, “If you have at least 5 of those symptoms, according to psychiatric guidelines, you qualify for a diagnosis of depression.”




What we don’t typically hear about in pharmaceutical ads are the measurable physiological changes depression writes in the brain, including decreased brain matter in the frontal lobe and atrophy of the hippocampus. These effects are measurable in humans and rats, in study after study after study. But while most of us know the names of a neurotransmitter or two these days, not even neuroscientists fully understand the biology of depression. They do know that some combination of medication, therapy, and, in extreme cases electroconvulsive treatment, can allow people to more fully experience life.

People in treatment will still feel “down” on occasion, just like everyone does. But depression, the explainer wants us to understand, should never be compared to ordinary sadness. Its effects on behavior and brain health are too wide-ranging, pervasive, persistent, and detrimental. These effects can be invisible, which adds to an unfortunate social stigma that dissuades people from seeking treatment. The more we talk about depression openly, rather than treating as it as a shameful secret, the more likely people at risk will be to seek help.

Just as depression cannot be alleviated by trivializing or ignoring it, the condition does not respond to being romanticized. While, indeed, many a famous painter, poet, actor, etc. has suffered from clinical depression—and made it a part of their art—their examples should not suggest to us that artists shouldn’t get treatment. Sadness is never trivial.

Unlike physical pain, it is difficult, for example, to pinpoint the direct causes of sadness. As the short video above demonstrates, the assumption that sadness is caused by external events arose relatively recently. The humoral system of the ancient Greeks treated all sadness as a biological phenomenon. Greek physicians believed it was an expression of black bile, or “melaina kole,” from which we derive the word "melancholy." It seems we’ve come full circle, in a way. Ancient humoral theorists recommended nutrition, medical treatment, and physical exercise as treatments for melancholia, just as doctors do today for depression.

But melancholy is a much broader term, not a scientific designation; it is a collection of ideas about sadness that span thousands of years. Nearly all of those ideas include some sense that sadness is an essential experience. “If you’ve never felt melancholy,” the narrator says, “you’ve missed out on part of what it means to be human.” Thinkers have described melancholia as a precursor to, or inevitable result of, acquiring wisdom. One key example, Robert Burton’s 1621 text The Anatomy of Melancholy, "the apogee of Renaissance scholarship," set the tone for discussions of melancholy for the next few centuries.

The scientific/philosophical/literary text argues, “he that increaseth wisdom, increaseth sorrow,” a sentiment the Romantic poets turned on its head. Before them came John Milton, whose 1645 poem Il Penseroso addresses melancholy as “thou Goddes, sage and holy… Sober, stedfast, and demure.” The deity Melancholy oversees the contemplative life and reveals essential truths through “Gorgeous Tragedy.”

One of the poem’s loftiest themes showed the way forward for the Romantics: “The poet who seeks to attain the highest level of creative expression must embrace the divine,” write Milton scholars Katherine Lynch and Thomas H. Luxon, "which can only be accomplished by following the path set out in Il Penseroso.” The divine, in this case, takes the form of sadness personified. Yet this poem cannot be read in isolation: its companion, L’Allegro, praises Mirth, and of sadness says, “Hence loathed Melancholy / Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born, in Stygian Cave forlorn / ‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shrieks, and sights unholy.”

Rather than contradict each other, these two characterizations speak to the ambivalent attitudes, and vastly different experiences, humans have about sadness. Fleeting bouts of melancholy can be sweet, touching, and beautiful, inspiring art, music, and poetry. Sadness can force us to reckon with life’s unpleasantness rather than deny or avoid it. On the other hand, in its most extreme, chronically intractable forms, such as what we now call clinical depression, sadness can destroy our capacity to act, to appreciate beauty and learn important lessons, marking the critical difference between a universal existential condition and a, thankfully, treatable physical disease.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Incompetent People Think They’re Amazing: An Animated Lesson from David Dunning (of the Famous “Dunning-Kruger Effect”)

The business world has long had special jargon for the Kafkaesque incompetence bedeviling the ranks of upper management. There is “the Peter principle,” first described in a satirical book of the same name in 1968. More recently, we have the positive notion of “failing upward.” The concept has inspired a mantra, “fail harder, fail faster,” as well as popular books like The Gift of Failure. Famed research professor, author, and TED talker Brené Brown has called TED “the failure conference," and indeed, a “FailCon” does exist, “in over a dozen cities on 6 continents around the globe.”

The candor about this most unavoidable of human phenomena may prove a boon to public health, lowering levels of hypertension by a significant margin. But is there a danger in praising failure too fervently? (Samuel Beckett’s quote on the matter, beloved by many a 21st century thought leader, proves decidedly more ambiguous in context.) Might it present an even greater opportunity for people to “rise to their level of incompetence”? Given the prevalence of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” a cognitive bias explained by John Cleese in a previous post, we may not be well-placed to know whether our efforts constitute success or failure, or whether we actually have the skills we think we do.




First described by social psychologists David Dunning (University of Michigan) and Justin Kruger (N.Y.U.) in 1999, the effect “suggests that we’re not very good at evaluating ourselves accurately.” So says the narrator of the TED-Ed lesson above, scripted by Dunning and offering a sober reminder of the human propensity for self-delusion. “We frequently overestimate our own abilities,” resulting in widespread “illusory superiority” that makes “incompetent people think they’re amazing.” The effect greatly intensifies at the lower end of the scale; it is often “those with the least ability who are most likely to overrate their skills to the greatest extent.” Or as Cleese plainly puts it, some people “are so stupid, they have no idea how stupid they are.”

Combine this with the converse effect—the tendency of skilled individuals to underrate themselves—and we have the preconditions for an epidemic of mismatched skill sets and positions. But while imposter syndrome can produce tragic personal results and deprive the world of talent, the Dunning-Kruger effect’s worst casualties affect us all adversely. People “measurably poor at logical reasoning, grammar, financial knowledge, math, emotional intelligence, running medical lab tests, and chess all tend to rate their expertise almost as favorably as actual experts do.” When such people get promoted up the chain, they can unwittingly do a great deal of harm.

While arrogant self-importance plays its role in fostering delusions of expertise, Dunning and Kruger found that most of us are subject to the effect in some area of our lives simply because we lack the skills to understand how bad we are at certain things. We don't know the rules well enough to successfully, creatively break them. Until we have some basic understanding of what constitutes competence in a particular endeavor, we cannot even understand that we’ve failed.

Real experts, on the other hand, tend to assume their skills are ordinary and unremarkable. “The result is that people, whether they’re inept or highly skilled, are often caught in a bubble of inaccurate self-perception." How can we get out? The answers won’t surprise you. Listen to constructive feedback and never stop learning, behavior that can require a good deal of vulnerability and humility.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

Earlier this week we featured the Foreign Service Institute's list of languages ranked by how long they take to learn. Now that you have a sense of the relative life investment required to learn the tongue or tongues of your choice, how about a few words of advice on how to start? Or perhaps we'd do better, before the how, to consider the why. "A lot of us start with the wrong motivation to learn a language," says Benny Lewis in his TED Talk "Hacking Language Learning." Those motivations include "just to pass an exam, to improve our career prospects, or in my case for superficial reasons, to impress people."

Real language learning, on the other hand, comes from passion for a language, for "the literature and the movies and being able to read in the language, and of course, to use it with people." But Lewis, who now brands himself as "The Irish Polyglot," says he got a late start on language-learning, convinced up until his early twenties that he simply couldn't do it.




He cites five flimsy defenses he once used, and so many others still do, for their monolingualism: lack of a "language gene or talent," being "too old to learn a second language," not having the resources to "travel to the country right now," and not wanting to "frustrate native speakers" by using the language before attaining fluency.

None of these, however, seem to have occurred to Tim Doner, who went viral at sixteen years with a video wherein he spoke twenty languages that he taught himself. He discusses that experience, and the fascinations and techniques that got him to that point and now well past it, in his talk "Breaking the Language Barrier." At first put off by the drudgery of French classes in school, he only began to grasp the nature of language itself, as a kind of system breakable into masterable rules, when he began studying Latin.

Wanting to understand more about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Doner decided to find his way into the subject through Hebrew, and specifically through rap music recorded in it. Using language study as a means of dealing with his insomnia, he discovered techniques to expand into other linguistic realms, such as the method of loci (i.e., remembering words by associating them with places), learning vocabulary in batches of similar sounds rather than similar meanings, and seeking out the foreign-language learners and speakers all around him — a relatively easy task for a New Yorker like Doner, but applicable nearly everywhere.

In "How to Learn Any Language in Six Months," Chris Lonsdale delivers, and with a passion bordering on fury, a set of useful principles like "Focus on language content that is relevant to you," "Use your new language as a tool to communicate from day one," "When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously acquire the language." This resonates with the advice offered by the much more laid-back Sid Efromovich in "Five Techniques to Speak any Language," including an encouragement to "get things wrong and make mistakes," a suggestion to "find a stickler" to help you identify and correct those mistakes, and a strategy for overcoming the pronunciation-hindering limitations of the "database" of sounds long established in your brain by your native language.

Your native language, in fact, will play the role of your most aggressive and persistent enemy in the struggle to learn a foreign one — especially if your native language is as widely used, to one degree or another, as English. And so Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, in their talk "One Simple Method to Learn Any Language," propose an absolute "no-English rule." You can get results using it with a conversation partner in your homeland, while traveling for the purpose of language-learning, and especially if you've relocated to another country permanently.

With the rule in place, you'll avoid the sorry fate of one fellow Young and Jaiswal know, "an American businessman who went to Korea, married a Korean women, had children in Korea, lived in Korea for twenty years, and still couldn't have a decent conversation in Korean." As an American living in Korea myself, I had to laugh at that: I could name at least three dozen long-term Western expatriates I've met in that very same situation. In my case, I spent a few years developing self-study habits for Korean and a couple other languages while still in America, and so didn't have to implement them on the fly after moving here.

Even so, I still must constantly refine my language-learning strategy, incorporating routines like those laid out by English polyglot Matthew Youlden in "How to Speak any Language Easily": seeking out exploitable similarities between the languages I know and the ones I want to know better, say, or finding sources of constant "passive" linguistic input. Personally, I like to listen to podcasts not just in foreign languages, but that teach one foreign language through another. And just as English-learners get good listening practice out of TED Talks like these, I seek them out in other languages: Korean, Japanese, Spanish, or wherever good old linguistic passion leads me next.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Power of Introverts: Author Susan Cain Explains Why We Need to Appreciate the Talents & Abilities of the Quiet Ones

Ours is a loud culture of nonstop personal sharing, endless chatter, and 24-hour news, opinion, and entertainment. Even those people who prefer reading alone to the overstimulating carnival of social media feel pressured to participate. How else can you keep up with your family—whose Facebook posts you’d rather see die than have to read? How else to build a profile for employers—whom you desperately hope won’t check your Twitter feed?

For the introvert, maintaining an always-on façade can be profoundly enervating—and the problem goes far beyond the personal, argues author Susan Cain, reaching into every area of our lives.

“If you take a group of people and put them into a meeting,” says Cain in the short RSA video above, “the opinions of the loudest person, or the most charismatic person, or the most assertive person—those are the opinions that the group tends to follow.” This despite the fact that research shows “zero correlation” between being the loudest voice in the room and having the best ideas. Don’t we know this all too well.




Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book about leadership for introverts, the group least likely to want the social demands leadership requires. And yet, she argues, we nonetheless need introverts as leaders. “We’re living in a society now that is so overly extroverted,” she says. Cain identifies the phenomenon as a symptom of corporate capitalism overcoming predominantly agricultural ways of life. Aside from the significant question of whether we can change the culture without changing the economy, Cain makes a timely and compelling argument for a society that values different personality types equally.

But can there be a “world where it’s yin and yang” between introverts and extroverts? That depends, perhaps on how much credence we lend these well-worn Jungian categories, or whether we think of them as existing in binary opposition rather than on a spectrum, a circle, a hexagram, or whatever. Cain is not a psychologist but a former corporate lawyer who at least seems to believe the balancing act between extroverted and introverted can be achieved in the corporate world. She has given talks on “Networking for Introverts,” addressed the engineers at Google, and taken to the TED stage, the thought leader arena that accommodates all kinds of personalities, for better or worse.

Cain's TED talk above may be one of the better ones. Opening with a moving and funny personal narrative, she walks us through the barrage of messages introverts receive condemning their desire for quietude as somehow perverse and selfish. Naturally solitary people are taught to think of their introversion as "a second-class personality trait," Cain writes in her book, "somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." Introverts must swim against the tide to be themselves. “Our most important institutions," she says above, "our schools and our workplaces, they are designed mostly for extroverts, and for extroverts' need for stimulation.”

The bias is deep, reaching into the classrooms of young children, who are now forced to do most of their work by committee. But when introverts give in to the social pressure that forces them into awkward extroverted roles, the loss affects everyone. “At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Cain says, “when it comes to creativity and to leadership, we need introverts doing what they do best.” Paradoxically, that can look like introverts taking the helm, but out of a genuine sense of duty rather than a desire for the spotlight.

Introverted leaders are more likely to share power and give others space to express ideas, Cain argues. Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks exemplify such introverted leadership, and a quieter, more balanced and thoughtful culture would produce more leaders like them. Maybe this is a proposition anyone can endorse, whether they prefer Friday nights with hot tea and a novel or in the crush and bustle of the crowds.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Kintsugi: The Centuries-Old Japanese Craft of Repairing Pottery with Gold & Finding Beauty in Broken Things

We all grow up believing we should emphasize the inherent positives about ourselves. But what if we also emphasized the negatives, the parts we've had to work to fix or improve? If we did it just right, would the negatives still look so negative after all? These kinds of questions come to mind when one ponders the traditional Japanese craft of kintsugi, a means of repairing broken pottery that aims not for perfection, a return to "as good as new," but for a kind of post-breakage reinvention that dares not to hide the cracks.

"Translated to 'golden joinery,' Kintsugi (or Kintsukuroi, which means 'golden repair') is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum" says My Modern Met.




"Beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. This repair method celebrates each artifact's unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with new life."

Kintsugi originates, so one theory has it, in the late 15th century under the culturally inclined shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, during whose reign the sensibilities of traditional Japanese art as we known them emerged. When Ashikaga sent one of his damaged Chinese tea bowls back to his motherland for repairs, it came back reassembled with ungainly metal staples. This prompted his craftsmen to find a better way: why not use that gilded lacquer to emphasize the cracks instead of hiding them? The technique was said to have won the admiration of famed (and not easily impressed) tea master Sen no Rikyū, major proponent of the imperfection-appreciating aesthetic wabi sabi.

You can hear and see these stories of kintsugi's origins in the videos from Nerdwriter and Alain de Botton's School of Life at the top of the post. The clip just above offers a closer look at the painstaking techniques of modern kintsugi, which not only survives but thrives today, having expanded to include other materials, repairing glassware as well as ceramics, for example, or filling the cracks with silver instead of gold. And what could underscore the current global relevance of kintsugi more than the fact that the craft has inspired not one but two TEDTalks, the first by Audrey Harris in Kyoto in 2015 and the second by Maddie Kelly in Adelaide last year. We all, it seems, want to repair our cracks; kintsugi shows the way to do it not just honestly but artfully.

h/t the nugget

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Stress Can Change Your Brain: An Animated Introduction

We hear the mantra of “self-care” in ever-widening circles, a concept both derided and celebrated as a “millennial obsession,” with the acknowledgment—at least in this NPR think piece— that self-care was central to the philosophies of antiquity, from Aristotle to the Stoics.

In philosophy, self-care exists as a set of ethics. The reasons for this may often be couched in high-minded discussions of civics, sexual politics, and existential self-actualization. These days, doctors and researchers are making urgent appeals for our mental and physical health, and the science of stress is an unsurprisingly rich field of investigation at the moment.




It’s hard to overstate the negative effects of stress on the body over time. Increased stress hormones have been linked in study after study to overeating and obesity, lowered immune response, drug use and addiction, memory impairment, heart disease, and many other debilitating and life-threatening conditions. “The long-term activation of the stress-response system,” writes the Mayo Clinic, “and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones—can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.” (The video below makes this harrowing point with some helpful, animated comic relief.)

When we experience chronic stress, it raises our blood pressure and affects our cardiovascular system, increasing the chances of heart attack or stroke. The even worse news—reports the TED-Ed video at the top of the post—is that chronic stress weakens our ability to make sound decisions about our well-being, by changing the size, structure, and function of our brain.

We’re familiar with the symptoms of chronic stress: “sleeping restlessly,” becoming “irritable or moody,” “forgetting little things,” and “feeling overwhelmed and isolated.” Continuous stress, from our work lives, home lives, social and political lives, can cause shrinking in parts of the brain responsible for memory, spatial recognition… and stress regulation.

Research shows that high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones can cause shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and decision-making. Stress can inhibit neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to adapt to new circumstances—and neurogenesis: the ability to produce new brain cells.

Conversely, stress increases the size of the amygdala, which activates fight-or-flight responses, which in turn increase the strain on our heart and blood vessels.

All of these effects can set the stage in later life for major depression, forms of cognitive decline and dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Most unsettlingly, as the video notes, these effects can be passed down to the next generation, furthering the cycle of chronic stress in our children and theirs. Persistent stress “filters down” to DNA, making it genetically inheritable.

Given the incredible amount of stress most people seem to be under, this science can seem like a diagnosis of doom. We all know that chronic stressors assail us all day long, without asking whether we want them in our lives or not. An increasing amount of our daily stress, I’d hypothesize, may indeed come from the growing realization of how little control we have over many stressful situations.

But the TED explainer ends with good news, and it’s been there all along—we can find it in the ancient Greeks, in Buddhist practices, and many other traditions, both active and contemplative. We can control our responses to stress, and thus reverse and modulate the effects of cortisol on our system. The best, proven, ways to do so are through exercise and meditation (and, I'd add, good nutrition).

These activities will not eradicate the conditions of inequality, injustice, or instability that stress us all out—a great many of us more than others. But practicing “self-care” inasmuch as we are able with stress-relieving disciplines and practices will better equip us to respond to the state of the world and the state of our lives by interrupting the biological mechanisms that, over time, make things much worse. Find some helpful resources below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Reality Is Nothing But a Hallucination: A Mind-Bending Crash Course on the Neuroscience of Consciousness

If you've been accused of living in "a world of your own," get ready for some validation. As cognitive scientist Anil Seth argues in "Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality," the TED Talk above, everyone lives in a world of their own — at least if by "everyone" you mean "every brain," by "world" you mean "entire reality," and by "of their own" you mean "that it has created for itself." With all the signals it receives from our senses and all the prior experiences it has organized into expectations, each of our brains constructs a coherent image of reality — a "multisensory, panoramic 3D, fully, immersive inner movie" — for us to perceive.

"Perception has to be a process of 'informed guesswork,'" says the TED Blog's accompanying notes, "in which sensory signals are combined with prior expectations about the way the world is, to form the brain’s best guess of the causes of these signals."




Seth uses optical illusions and classic experiments to underscore the point that “we don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much from the inside-out as the outside-in," in a process hardly different from that which we casually call hallucination. Indeed, in a way, we're always hallucinating. “It’s just that when we agree about our hallucinations, that’s what we call ‘reality.’” And as for what, exactly, constitutes the "we," our brains do a good deal of work to construct that too.

Seventeen minutes only allows Dash to go so far down the rabbit hole of the neuroscience of consciousness, but he'll galvanize the curiosity of anyone with even a mild interest in this mind-mending subject. He leaves us with a few implications of his and others' research to consider: first, "just as we can misperceive the world, we can misperceive ourselves"; second, "what it means to be me cannot be reduced to — or uploaded to — a software program running on an advanced robot, however sophisticated"; third, "our individual inner universe is just one way of being conscious, and even human consciousness generally is a tiny region in a vast space of possible consciousnesses." As we've learned, in a sense, from every TED Talk, no matter how busy a brain may be constructing both reality and the self, it can always come up with a few big takeaways for the audience.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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