Creative types are often singled out when it comes to depression and mental states that go beyond the bell curve. But, research shows that could actually be a good thing.

Creative types are often singled out when it comes to depression and mental states that go beyond the bell curve. But, research shows that could actually be a good thing.

The relationship between creativity and depression has been highlighted this week given the loss of the great Robin Williams. Here's a man who created one of the most original personas of all time, and made millions crack up at his insane jokes. Yet, his underlying battle with depression and addiction gave his acting and comedy a dimensional versatility that made the internal struggles of his characters endearingly apparent.

As millions mourn his loss, many of us are left wondering: Why was that? Why are creative types like Robin Williams inordinately more depressed?

Tons of previous research has shown a link between creativity and depression, but there's an evolutionary explanation brought to you by none other than the big daddy of evolution himself, Charles Darwin, that's the most encompassing.

After his own depression began to  impact his theoretical and scientific work, Darwin made it a primary topic of his research to uncover the reason why creative thinkers were disproportionately sad.

Because his theory of evolution claimed that “only the strong survive,” depression seemed to be like a phenomenal mistake. Especially when you consider that depression leads to lack of motivation towards completing basic, life-supporting functions like eating, exercise, and sex, as well as leads to thoughts of suicide. If the goal of species was to evolve adaptations to proliferate and thrive, why would we evolve depression?

Because, depression makes you creative through a process called self-reflective rumination. It's a common underlying psychological characteristic that both increases the risk for depression and spurs interest in and ability for creative behavior.

Rumination involves focusing on and trying to understand profound life experiences like suffering and pain. Major depression is amplified in those who tend to ruminate on their thoughts because people who do this will replay these painful thoughts and experiences over and over in their head in an effort to try to understand them. Rumination, children, is the one of the keys to creativity. Creativity is essentially making sense of and connecting the small details of everything we experience.

Summary: Self-reflective rumination is thinking about yourself and your own thoughts more. Creative people tend to over think those things and wind up with innovative solutions and original concepts because of the amount of thought they've put into it.

It turns out that depression doesn’t make you creative, per se. In-fact, the opposite is actually true. The creative person, who spends his or her time ruminating on thoughts is likely to suffer from major depression to do the amount of thinking they do about profound experiences.

From an evolutionary perspective, depression is a psychological desire to be better, to be stronger, to reflect on where we’ve made mistakes, and to find ways to improve ourselves overall. Think about it … if you're an evolving hominid in 3,000 BC and a bear bites your arm off, its evolutionarily beneficial to you to over-think what happened so you don't get your other arm annihilated. And ruminating about it is evolutions way of doubling the chances that you won't make the same mistake twice; not only are you now a freak on a leash with three limbs, you're also really sad about what happened. Researchers Andy Thomson and Paul Andrews confirmed this theory, stating that "depression is an evolutionary way for us to tightly focus our attention on what needs changing in our lives."

On that note, consider epigenetics, which is your current genetic makeup. If you've spent a ton of time ruminating about the bear incident and it's had an adverse physiological reaction in your body (depression), then you are more likely to pass down a genetic makeup to your spawn that unconsciously signals them to be wary of bears. How else do you think we as a species evolved to be afraid of things that are threatening to us?

It's even true with heartbreak. Feelings of rejection can alter your genetic makeup, and over centuries, we've learned to associate relational rejection with the physical and emotional feelings of heartbreak. We even feel those feelings when we haven't been downright rejected. Rejection is threatening, because it decreases the chances of species proliferation. Get it?

That's why the creativity-depression link can be a good thing. That's not to say that it's always beneficial, or not completely harrowing to deal with. But there is a Darwinian explanation for it.

Another upside to that correlation is that for creatives, depression motivates them to work better, harder, more ingeniously.

According to Shelley Carson, a psychology professor at Harvard University, the upswing of coming out of a depressive state or creative slump, is the motivation to produce immense amounts of work. Physiologically, that motivation has the same manic, rewarding effect on your brain as if you received a random gift or some really great news.

For many creatives, especially Robin Williams, dealing with depression brings heart, soul, and empathy to their work. People are moved by it, because the emotional layers and dimensionality are relatable whether on a conscious level or not. Robin's struggle with depression also made him vulnerable, a huge part of what made him so beloved.

And while we're going to miss him more than words can say, there's some solace in the fact that his depression and immense creativity wasn't some sort of sad fluke; it was likely a part of the larger evolutionary design that dictates our behavior on a daily basis. Gotta stay positive, people.