Learning and depression

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Learning at school

If learning is a source of pleasure and reward, why do we see rampant depression in kids of school age? Despite being institutions of learning, schools are more likely to contribute to depression than to act as a remedy. Without the freedom to learn, it is hard to achieve good learning. For learning to be pleasurable, it needs to be powered by the learn drive. It cannot be coercive or mandatory. It must be free.

Impact of memory on mood

Free learning is fun, however, the pleasure of learning is not what makes it a great tool against depression.

Memory is a factor that may trigger or suppress depression. Memories determine how input signals get routed in the brain. Memory determines what concepts get associated with inputs or neural activations. Memories determine how we react to the sound of a passing car. It may bring up the memories of a happy vacation, the inspiration of Elon Musk, or memories of a car accident that crippled a loved one.

For memories to have a significant impact on mood, we need many of them. It is not enough to sit down a session with psychotherapist and learn a few key facts about the brain, our lives, or coping strategies. It takes months and years of learning to develop healthy tracks in the brain. We may build associations that are inherently optimistic or inherently pessimistic. We need thousands of such associations to swing the balance. However, even years of learning may easily be overturned by a pathology or trauma. Neurohormones can instantly change the mode in which the brain works. A switch in neurohormonal profile will instantly give preference to a subset of memories that may affect mood in a negative way. Trauma can plant memories that will stoke up new source of activation that will override activation from other sources. In other words, an armament of good memories may count for nothing if a switch changes the tracks in use or if a new source of activation is born in the brain. It is hardly possible to mitigate the death of a close person with learning.

Once depression hits, the affected individual faces a double whammy. Not only are good memories on defense. Bad memories start circling around facilitating their own new tracks and gaining upper hand. The brain reprograms itself and swings the balance of mood in a wrong direction. When this process becomes a runaway, we may have a clinical depression at hand. To complete bad news, depressed patients lose their love of life and their love of learning.

Can learning disrupt this cycle? It can be extremely hard! Respect for circadian cycle is the first step towards recovering the derailed brain. In the circadian cycle, peak creativity window needs to be captured to attempt remedial learning. Learning needs to be prolific, intense, effective, and pleasurable. Incremental reading would be fantastic if it was not that difficult. For a depressed individual with no skills in the department, SuperMemo is no remedy. It is too late. Trying to master incremental reading in a bad state of mind could only make matters worse. It could result in a hate of incremental reading.

If learning is possible, it can act as a refuge, which might help suppress negative memories and build new connections. As of that point, the process of building new tendrils of knowledge may begin. This process that should take the mind towards a more optimistic interpretation of the world is slow and laborious. In most severe cases, it may take months or years of hard work and the outcome is not guaranteed.

The ultimate conclusion is that learning is not a panacea, however, it can play an important role in therapy. Most of all, the risk of depression can be staved off years in advance by rich and effective learning. That learning must proceed in conditions of freedom and respect for the learn drive. In short, love of learning is a good way towards the love of life.


I am a medical Luddite. For a healthy body, I stick to the rule "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". I avoid all forms of pharmacological intervention. I believe in powers of homeostasis and dangers of homeostatic intervention. The strongest drugs I use are coffee and beer. I do not even use aspirin. I am most dismayed by the misuse of antibiotics, painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-depressants. It has been decades since I last took an antibiotic. Long enough to forget. I will use one on a death bed if necessary. All drugs have their legitimate use and so do anti-depressants. As they result in receptor downregulation, once taken, they make the neurotransmitter status quo worse. This usually means, the more the drug is taken, the more it needs to be taken to avoid a setback. However, in severe cases of clinical depression, the drugs may stop the runaway process. They may protect the brain from self-injury. Once a depressed patient starts losing brain cells, the road to recovery becomes long and bumpy. The moment anti-depressant therapy begins, if it works, is the best moment to use learning as therapy. As long as the brain is willing to proceed, learning can start up those delicate tendrils of knowledge that will hook onto reality to produce vestigial learn drive. In the ideal case, once the drugs are withdrawn, that learn drive should survive to begin a process that is a reverse of depression: positive feedback of learning, creativity, good sleep, and good mood. This is not easy, but it is very important. If drug therapy is the only thing that changes in patient's life, it will work more as a break on the pathological process. It will not set the brain in a better state than the one from before the problem started. Improvements require active effort. Without a healthy learn drive, building up positive memories will not begin.

Learn drive and optimism

Toddlers seem to show the most exuberant learn drive. No wonder, healthy children are born optimistic. There is a correlation between optimism and the learn drive. Happy mind might act as an energizer of the learn drive on the neurochemical basis. Pessimism will definitely act as a suppressant or filter that will prevent the expression of the learn drive. In that sense, pessimistic mind may mask the learn drive. In depression, the learn drive may disappear entirely. No wonder Dr Robert Sapolsky called depression the worst disease in the world.

A consensus seems to emerge that schools are major contributors to depression among teenagers (and later in life). The mechanism isn't clear, but suppressing the learn drive might be one of the components.

Can learning help you?

If you are reading this and you are not sure learning can help you, ask yourself the question: Are you in a good mood today? As mentioned above, when you are on a downswing and looking for a solution, your interpretations are darker, and you may not find this text comforting enough. Remember then about the concept of activation energy: you need a little first step to begin and you may then be pulled in by a vortex of interesting things to learn.

If you are in no mood for quantum mechanics, start from petty celebrity news or sports news. Lowly learning is better than no learning!