Depression, one of the most devastating mental illnesses, is rarely talked about openly and its diagnosis is often made harder by the difficulty of describing its symptoms. It is characterized by changes in subjective experience that cannot easily be explained by traditional psychiatric or scientific terms. However, there is a new hypothesis that suggests depression is an altered state of consciousness, which could offer insights into better diagnosing this condition.
We all dream, and many of us experience nightmares; this reveals a connection between consciousness and emotional states. In similar fashion, our everyday consciousness exists in a sequence of dynamic and ever-shifting states we call “moods”. Fluctuations in mood can lead to intense sensations of sadness or joy. Over longer periods, fluctuations in mood can result in sustained changes in our consciousness—such as depression.
Depression has its own unique characteristics which can be identified if we view it as an altered state. For instance, during periods of depression, the individual might feel less energy than usual, and experience lack of focus and concentration. Additionally, other cognitive articles can be noticed such as disrupted sleep patterns and unusual attention spans. Most commonly, deep feelings of hopelessness will emerge.
Interestingly, research has also revealed that certain types of emotions can induce an altered state. Intense feelings of despair, words of anticipatory defeat, and what psychologists term ‘cognitive distortions’ can all affect the depressed person’s conscious reality and ultimately their ability to cope with everyday life. These feelings can cause an interference in normal thought processes and a distorted sense of reality.
Thus, the evidence demonstrates that depression is a complex series of alterations to one's consciousness. It is important that we understand it as such, in order to better diagnose it. To do so, developing an objective diagnostic tool is paramount. This could be based on measurements such as activity in particular areas of the brain, heart rate, and respiration. It would build upon the pioneering work that has already been done linking emotional states and physical measures.
Furthermore, given the dynamic nature of consciousness, it is possible that depression might respond well to treatments that focus on shifting the patient’s state – such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. Interventions such as these have been suggested before, but they were always lacking reliable ways of assessing success or confirming changes in consciousness. That may no longer be the case: we now have new tools such as EEGs and MRI scans to identify and track even subtle changes in the brain.
The hope is that identifying depression as a natural altered state of consciousness will further our understanding of the illness and inform more effective treatment programs. Diagnosing depression accurately could reduce the stigma surrounding the illness and bring medical professionals closer to finding solutions for the millions who suffer from it.