How Major Depression Impaired My Cognitive Ability
A reflection into my experience of depression and how it affected my thinking.
Posted Jul 28, 2014
This is a guest post by Yedidya Erque, Williams College Class of 2017.
I suffered from major depression during my first year at Williams College. I grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the weather is very moderate. The harsh winter of Massachusetts may have played a role in my spiraling down into depths of despair I had never experienced before. I began to feel listless and tired all the time, I started avoiding my friends; people annoyed me for no reason and I lacked the energy to even go out of my room.
As winter gave in to spring and regular classes began, my depression escalated to an alarming level. I was taking courses I did not like because of pressure from back home and the workload got increasingly hard for me to handle. I could not focus on schoolwork; I could not sleep properly; I would weep for no reason and felt completely isolated from my friends and family. My schoolwork suffered because my concentration was shot; I would stare at a single page for a long time without understanding what I was reading and I was unable to remember even the titles of the books I had read only the day before. My inability to focus made me frightened and I would cry wondering what was wrong with me. My anxiety overwhelmed me to the point that I could not even keep track of conversations when people talked to me. In the end, I had to take a leave of absence from Williams because I was unable to function and my family and the deans worried about my mental health.
For a long time after I went home, I blamed myself for failing. If only I had worked harder, studied more, and been a stronger person, I would not have had to quit and return back home with my tail between my legs while my friends successfully finished their freshman year. I did not even know if I could continue my studies because I had lost confidence in my ability to succeed academically. It took me over a year and a half to get over what happened and return to the place that had made me feel like an utter failure.
But I did return, and this time it was different. I was able to focus and pay attention in class; I actually enjoyed the challenges my courses gave me and I slowly started regaining my old self-confidence and enthusiasm for learning. After I felt I had safely moved past the pain I had experienced, I began to sit down and reflect to try to figure out what had happened back then and why my mind had failed me so completely.
Recently, I discovered some research articles about the connection between depression and working memory. Working memory is a system that manages intricate cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension and also acts as temporary storage for the information an individual is processing at a particular moment in time. The studies I read explained the ways in which depression cripples cognitive functions and I was surprised to learn that there is actually plenty of empirical data that could shed light as to what had been going on in my mind during my own battle with depression.
In 2005, Gary Christopher and John MacDonald compared 35 hospital patients diagnosed with major depression and 29 normal individuals with regards to several working memory tasks. This study showed a statistically significant difference between depressed and normal individuals in a test that assessed the phonological loop, one of the three major components of working memory. The study also showed statistically significant differences between these two groups in two tests that assessed central executive functioning. On a task that required participants to recall the last four letters of a string of letters that varied in length from four to eight letters, the individuals with depression had an average span of 3.2, in contrast to an average span of 7.4 for individuals without depression.
In 2008, Joormann and Gotlib published a paper that gave further insight into how depression impairs the capacity of the working memory. In the study, individuals with major depression, compared to those without depression, were found to have difficulty in expelling negative cognitions and memories from their working memories and pay attention to the cognitive tasks at hand. This failure of working memory to remove negative memories from its contents and update itself with relevant materials is also another major reason for the hardships that people with depression encounter in concentrating on the cognitive tasks they perform.
For me, these studies are the answer to a question that plagued me: Why had I struggled so much with my studies when I was depressed. At the time, I had reached the point where I was even unable to concentrate enough to maintain a conversation with other people. I had been filled with utter despair, feeling that I was despicable and that I did not even deserve the love of my friends and family. Others told me everything would turn out all right but I could not bring myself to believe them; I had lost hope and my entire future seemed to spread bleak in front of me.
From where I am now, I can hardly believe it was the same Yedidya who had been filled with so much despair that she felt that she did not deserve a second chance to return to Williams and resume her studies. But now I realize that the severity of my depression was the reason I had lost the concentration and focus that had been so crucial in order to go about my daily life as a student in Williams. Although to this day, I do not fully understand exactly how and why I suffered from depression, these studies have given me some idea of the way my mind was affected during that time. I have now reached a point where I can forgive myself and move on with my life. I believe this experience has made me better prepared for any hardships that I may encounter in the future.
If you have ever felt anything like I had, then I want you to realize that you are not alone. Even though it might feel like nothing will ever be all right again, there is still hope at the end of the dark tunnel of depression. Do not give up on life. I once believed that no one could understand the pain I was going through and I failed to reach to my friends and get help at the time. Even after my return, there were times when I feared that I might get severely depressed again and have to start all over again. But this time around, I shared my fears with my therapist and close friends and was repeatedly assured that they will always be there for me no matter what I went through. And so, I want to urge you to also reach out to others and get help. I truly believe that you can emerge out all the stronger because of all the pain you had to go through.
Joormann, J., & Gotlib, I. H. (2008). Updating the contents of working memory in depression: Interference from irrelevant negative material. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 117(1), 182-192. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.117.1.182
Christopher, G., & MacDonald, J. (2005). The impact of clinical depression on working memory. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 10(5), 379-399. doi:10.1080/13546800444000128