Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickenson, and Vincent Van Gogh all had highly developed intellects.
That wasn’t the only thing they shared.
Experts now believe they all may have shared the same mental condition, which supports the theory that people with developed intelligence may be more susceptible to mental conditions, like depression.
This topic is up for debate within the mental health community, but we’d like to explore the topic here today.
Is there a link between intelligence and depression?
What is Depression, and Why Do We Get It?
Depression is a perception of reality that is skewed towards negativity.
Beyond that, depression exists on a spectrum where you can go from very mild depressive symptoms, such as a lack of appetite or motivation, to much more severe symptoms such as thoughts of worthlessness and suicide. Depression can range from simply not finding the energy or will or “point” in many things, being cynical while having a very low self-opinion, to ultimately considering life itself pointless.
It’s not an accurate portrayal of reality – but it’s not quite a psychosis, either (although mind you, some cases of depression can come with psychotic symptoms). Psychotic symptoms imply that someone is delusional in their thinking, often because of fabricated realities such as hallucinations, imaginary situations, and warped memories. Depression isn’t a mental illness that changes what people said or how things worked out, but rather, it’s like a filter that sucks the joy and purpose out of every little aspect of life. In cases of schizophrenia, for example, this is the perceived difference between “positive” or psychotic symptoms, and “negative” symptoms that alter or modify behavior by making a person bleaker.
As to why we get depressed, there are many inside factors and outside factors. Inside factors include genetics, brain chemistry (that may not have anything to do with the headgear you inherited), and environmental factors (affecting the way your brain works). Outside factors are typically trauma, both physical and emotional, and often childhood trauma.
Every case is unique, and a little different. You could be born into a perfectly normal or even happy family, but that doesn’t change the fact that your brain has an issue with the absorption of serotonin. Or, you could land in unsavory familial and social circumstances, such as abuse and bullying – which only aggravates the condition, or could trigger it. Our brains don’t all function in either perfect or highly flawed way, and all factors, in the end, play a role in contributing to whether or not a person has depression, as well as how severe it might be.
Official authorities and doctors never pin intelligence or IQ as a proper correlating factor for depression. That’s because there’s research for and against the correlation, so it’s just a lot safer to say that it doesn’t really matter. Still, it’s worth checking out what the research says, and what it could mean.
Being Smart and Getting Depressed
We’ve been musing on the idea of depression and high intelligence for much longer than the existence of the scientific method, and even since its inception we’ve been testing the theory and coming up with mixed results. Some seem to agree with the idea that intelligence and depression – especially IQ and depression – are related.
It’ll be better to think of it all from a different angle – it’s not that being smart makes you depressed, it’s that being smart often comes with certain other qualities that can easily lend themselves to falling into a depression. Smarter individuals tend to analyze their lives, and that leads them to become hypercritical, it leads to worrying and overthinking.
Highly intelligent individuals also tend to lead very active inner lives, being deeply sensitive and emotional. These are factors that tend to lead to issues with depression because you’re more likely to skew your thoughts towards cynicism and negativity with time – especially if you lack the emotional support and positive experiences needed to affirm a more positive image of both yourself and the world around you.
The statistics show that students with a natural aptitude in the humanities – subjects like linguistics and music, visual arts and performance – and to a lesser degree, arithmetic and sciences, have a stronger-than-average likelihood of developing manic depressive symptoms (bipolar disorder) later on in life. Creative intelligence, social withdrawal, emotional intelligence and the ability to “connect-the-dots” all seem to be indicators of a higher risk of depression – as well as manic depressive issues and schizophrenia.
Why? Perhaps it’s because you’re more likely to live in your head, overthink things and worry when you’re smart enough to do so. Perhaps it’s the ostracizing of higher intelligence in social settings, especially in childhood, that leads to a lack of social contact and feelings of depression and lower self-worth – smarter students sometimes get bullied into a depression.
It’s more plausible to state that, just like how arrogance and intelligence may be conflated with each other despite not necessarily having a strong correlation (being intelligent doesn’t mean you’re more likely to be arrogant, but you can most definitely be arrogant and intelligent), intelligence and depression are superficially linked.
Intelligence doesn’t translate to a higher emotional or social sensitivity, not automatically at least. And let’s not forget that there are much larger factors at play when discussing depression, specifically brain chemistry and emotional/social circumstances. So, let’s turn to the flip side of the coin.
We’ve talked about high intelligence and depression, but let’s not forget that it can go the other way. When surveyed about basic markers of happiness – from personal satisfaction to relationships – people with a lower IQ tended to be less happy than people with higher IQs. Furthermore, people with depressive symptoms tended to score lower in exercises of intelligence and cognitive thinking than people with normal, healthy mental conditions. In short, there’s also research to suggest that with a low IQ and a lower intelligence comes a higher risk of depression.
One possible reason is that lower intelligence means it’s harder to complete job-related tasks and thus get into a decent financial standing. And the way our world works, if you aren’t in decent financial standing, you’ll have quite some trouble finding your happiness in this world.
There is this stereotype that having a less than average intelligence ultimately means you’re less likely to notice or realize that your life is a mess. While there is some truth to the term “ignorance is bliss”, it doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of recognizing a bad situation just because your intelligence is below average.
However, there is also a lot of research that shows that depression actively leads to a detrimental development of the frontal lobe, ultimately affecting your intelligence and lowering your IQ because you’re simply too depressed to think straight, or can’t complete certain cognitive tasks anymore. So some argue that it isn’t so much that you’re more likely to be depressed with a lower intelligence, but rather that being depressed lowers your intelligence.
All this does it further confuse the matter – but it also gives some interesting insight into how depression affects the brain. We think so little of ourselves and our thoughts are mired in such negativity that at some point, our ability to think at all diminishes.
Do the Circumstances Matter Most?
When talking about depression, one interesting point that gets made is a higher intelligence typically lends itself to a higher risk of depression in cases where negative experiences shape a person’s life more than positive experiences do. They say ignorance is bliss, so to a more perceptive person, more negative experiences lead to a negative perception of life. If someone is quite gifted at catching onto patterns and seeing the logical conclusion of things, then lots of negativity at an early enough age for context not to play a role in thinking means that that sort of negative thinking takes root and applies itself to the future.
Sure, life is hard and unfair, but it helps to look at things in a multitude of perspectives, different contexts and draw a positive conclusion for personal growth. That’s hard to do when you’re younger and everything can seem so much simpler and more drastic, even with a high intelligence.
Getting out of that way of thinking only becomes harder the longer you’re in it because you stop trying at a certain point. Without happiness, people lack the motivation to pursue or explore or push their limits – and we simply wither away emotionally.
On the other hand, if you live a life wherein your high intelligence was regularly rewarded, then it’d be quite easy for you to skew in the other way and develop a bit of an inflated ego and sense of self.
This makes it seem like being really smart means you’re either depressed or self-centered and that – again – isn’t true. This isn’t meant to be a matter of generalizing all intelligent people, but rather, it’s a look at whether or not intelligence is a factor in depression and other mental illnesses.
Creativity and Depression
Again, the definitive answer is that we don’t know enough to say yes, or we do know enough to say no. There is also a case to be made for creative or emotional intelligence and mental illness. Since mental illness often comes with a higher emotional sensitivity, smarter people suffering from depression and other illnesses also have a greater ability to “tune into” the suffering of others, to be more empathic, to have a greater understanding of the human psyche and that whole spectrum of creative study.
But again, it’s possible that being smart and depressed/bipolar leads to a more empathic personality, rather than being smart leading to depressive symptoms. As such, if you’re highly intelligent and struggle with a depressive, over thinking, worrying personality, you have a better understanding of suffering and “the human condition” – and thus, exhibit greater creative potential in one art form or another.
It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation where you have to wonder whether the “symptom” is actually a factor, of if the factor is a symptom, and the answer could change from case to case – and it’s another example of how cases of depression vary wildly in terms of cause, circumstance, and experience. It’s all a spectrum, but one where not only the symptoms vary in severity, but where the factors vary wildly.
Not all depressed people think in one specific way, even if they’re prone to a specific type of thinking. Not all depressed people are very intelligent or the opposite – even if there’s some correlation towards both. In the end, we need to remember that depressed people are people. They can be smart, average, introverted, extroverted, and capable of great works of art or artistically challenged. They come in all shapes and sizes, personalities and flavors, and from all kinds of familial circumstances.
If we try to reduce the scope of depression or pair it to any one thing that isn’t an explicit factor, we risk losing the progress we’ve made in understanding this complex mental illness. It’s also important to remember that statistics are statistics, research is research – it helps give an overall picture of a diagnosis, but it should never trump actually exploring an individual’s case on its own.
Every case of depression, manic depression, and schizophrenia warrants a separate and unique approach based on the individual suffering from said mental illness.