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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

I have become Comfortably Numb: Depression and Perceptions of the Self

Chelsea Phillips

"Without emotion, man would be nothing
but a biological computer. Love, joy,
sorrow, fear, apprehension, anger,
satisfaction, and discontent provide
the meaning of human existence."
Arnold M. Ludwig---1980 (1)
Questions and Introduction

Depression is one of several serious mental health conditions affecting over 450 million people worldwide. Is there a universal experience of depression? If so, can that universal experience lead to a deeper understanding of concepts of the self across cultural boundaries?

Facts, Statistics and Symptoms
Symptoms of depression include:
* Depressed mood - most of the day, every day
* Mood swings - one minute high, next minute low
* Lack of energy and loss of interest in life
* Irritability and restlessness
* Disturbed sleep patterns - sleeping too much or too little
* Significant weight loss or gain
* Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
* Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly
* Loss of sex drive
* Thoughts about death and the option of suicide (2)
"Mental problems are common to all countries, cause immense human suffering, social exclusion, disability and poor quality of life. They also increase mortality and cause staggering economic and social costs" (3). Depression does not distunguish between ethnicity, gender or age, though it is twice as likely to occur in women and often goes undiagnosed or is misdiagnosed in second- and third-world countries without the resources to fund mental health programs (3). In addition, cultural associations with depression frequently prevent sufferers from seeking help.
In China, stoicism is a highly valued character trait- seeking help for depression would indicate a weakness in one's character (4). The same perception is observed in African-American culture, particularly when pertaining to women (4). Information gathered on depression in Hispanic culture indicates that depression is expressed somatically in chronic aches and pains in addition to the "common" symptoms. Linguistic evidence shows that the somatic theme is also present in China. The literal meaning of the word "depressed" in China is a closed and drowning heart and "Depression" is a worrying (heart-troubling) disease (5).

Expressions of Depression
While the above symptoms are naturally important in diagnosis and determining treatment, the personal testimony of those with depression is important when attempting to understand perceptions of the self. Personal testimonies on depression range from completely detached to hysterical and everything in between, including an affinity with the experience, a desire to stay depressed. These testimonies almost always indicate a loss of self, though this may be good in some cases. It is essential to understand that by "self," a person's perception of their normal cognitive state is meant.
"I have become comfortably numb." -Pink Floyd (6)

"No pain remains, no feeling..." -VNV Nation (6)

" mind lay limp in an empty world." -Despair, V. Nabokov (7)

"Wake me up inside...
before I come undone,
save me from the nothing I've become." -Evanescene (8)
"...and you´re watching moving shadows live instead of you ...
suicidal tendencies, but no will to interfer.
feel it coming over you ... indifference ... indifference ..." -Wolfsheim (6)

"all the weights that keep you down seem heavier than before.
they hit me in my face, though you feel nothing..." -Apoptygma Beserk (6)

"This is when I feel dead: when I lie in the dark (or sit or stand anytime, anywhere) and can feel how insignificant taking the next breath is...It doesn't hurt not to, there's no panic, only a mild, detached observation that this might be what it feels like to die."

"Depression is merely anger without enthusiasm"
- Unknown

"...And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead, again,
Then space began to toll..." -Emily Dickinson, #112 (9)

"It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul." -William Styron, "Darkness Visible" (10)

Each of these quotes and testimonies are astounding in their repetition. Loss of feeling, numbness, death. "Save me from the nothing I've become." Is "nothing" Ludwig's biological computer? To lose emotion is to lose an essential part of self as identity. Therefore, whatever makes our emotions makes our "selves?"
Chemical Theory
Although the exact cause of depression is unknown, theories on chemical imbalances in the brain have led to the development of medications capable of eliminating or reducing symptoms. Some of these medications are known as SSRI's or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Serotonin is a hormone produced in the brain, which affects many things, including appetite, emotion, and sleep pattern, and promotes feelings of calm, contented well-being. When too much serotonin is reabsorbed by the presynaptic nerves in the brain, depletion disrupts the normal cycles regulated by serotonin. (11)
Coupling this knowledge with the personal experiences naturally leads to the question: are chemicals the "self?" This chemical balance leads to the feelings of "numbness," "not being oneself," etc. because perceptions of the "normal" self have their roots in the typical chemical make-up of their individual brains. "I'm not happy like I usually am" becomes "My serotonin levels are usually higher than this" or "my dopamine levels aren't usually this erratic." Does the self really exist in combinations of chemicals; somewhere beyond the "I"-box, yet containing it- a fluid, perpetually moving self?


1)Dr. Ivan's Depression Central

2)Befriender's International

3)The World Health Organization


5)Online Chinese/English Dictionary

6)Song lyrics

7)Nabokov, Vladimir. Despair. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

8)Song Lyrics Search Engine

9)Serendip Website, a Web Paper on depression and serotonin

10)The Quote Cache

11)More from Serendip

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