DRMacIver's Notebook

Depression as felt restriction on emotional range

Depression as felt restriction on emotional range

In Experiences of Depression Matthew Ratcliffe does a great analysis of what it’s like to be depressed. Key to his analysis is a distinction between intentional feelings (“intentional” meaning “about something” rather than “deliberate”. It’s a philosopher thing. I often use “about” instead of “intentional”) and existential feelings, which are more pervasive feelings that colour your existence rather than being about one specific thing. You could think of these as feelings-about (intentional feelings) and feelings-of (existential feelings) if that helps.

Many of the feelings of depression are existential rather than intentional, which is why it is so frustrating when people ask you what you are depressed about. You’re not depressed about anything, because the feelings that make up your depression are existential ones, which lack aboutness.

One of the types of existential feelings that seems most central to depression are ones concerning restricted emotional range. A central example of this is hopelessness.

“Hope” is an intentional feeling. You hope for something. Hope has an intrinsic aboutness to it. Hopelessness on the other hand, is an existential one: It is more than merely a lack of hope, it is a feeling that hope is impossible. You can lack any particular hope without feeling hopeless.

It may be helpful to think of it as like being stuck. Feeling stuck is more than just the absence of movement. You can be non-moving without feeling stuck. Stuckness is the idea that movement is impossible.

In Minksy’s The Emotion Machine he talks about emotions as ways of thinking, and how one of the various systems that regulates our emotional experience are critics which are designed to protectively limit our thoughts and actions based on past experience. He suggests (p. 82) that there are at least three types of critic:

A Corrector declares that you are doing something dangerous. “You must stop right now, because you’re moving your hand toward aflame.”

A Suppressor interrupts before you begin the action you’re planning to take. “Don’t start to move your hand toward that flame, lest it get burned.”

A Censor acts yet earlier, to prevent that idea from occurring to you - so you never even consider the option of moving your hand in that direction.

(I don’t necessarily buy Minsky’s models in this book as 100% true, but I find them useful metaphors)

I’d suggest that it is useful to think of hopelessness and similar as the felt sense of a censor (a felt censor, so to speak). A censor is active that is preventing certain emotions from activating, and you can feel that that censor is there, and that feeling is an integral feature of the depressive experience.