Cure for Depression
By Barbara Kiser
Scientist Magazine, United Kingdom
live in mad times. The World Health Organization predicts depression
will soon rank second in the global disease burden, suicide rates
are rising, and the trauma caused by war, conflict or domestic
abuse is everywhere. The toll is horrific: mental illness costs
Britain alone £32 billion a year. And people looking for
therapy face a tower of psychobabble, with 400-plus often warring
schools. Enter Joe Griffin, creator of the new depression therapy,
Dreamcatcher, who says there is a way to lift depression in a
day, and told New Scientst Magazine that he can prove it
can you deal with serious depression in just a day?
The important thing is to know how depression is manufactured
in the brain. Once you understand that, you can correct the maladaptive
cycle incredibly fast. For 40 years it's been known that depressed
people have excessive REM sleep. They dream far more than healthy
people. What we realised - and proved - is that the negative introspection,
or ruminations, that depressed people engage in actually causes
the excessive dreaming. So depression is being generated on a
24-hour cycle and we can make a difference within 24 hours to
how a person feels.
how is dream sleep responsible for depression?
My findings show that ordinarily dream sleep does a great housekeeping
job for us. Each night it brings down our autonomic arousal level.
Dreams are metaphorical translations of those waking introspections
- emotionally arousing feelings and thoughts - that we don't act
upon while we are awake. Once aroused, our brain has to complete
that cycle of arousal and, if we don't complete it in the external
world, we do so in our dream sleep. The patterns of arousal are
metaphorically acted out and thereby deactivated. But depressed
people do so much worrying and feel so stuck that the ruminations
cause an overload of dreaming which uses up a lot of energy in
the brain. Which is why they wake up exhausted, unable to focus
their mind outwards and motivate themselves.
is a departure from the accepted view, isn't it?
Yes, it is. We filmed hundreds of cases and you can see time and
time again that when they start talking about depression, they
talk about waking up tired, low and emotional, how they have difficulty
getting off to sleep. And when it is explained to them how they
are doing this to themselves, the explanation alone helps - and
then the therapy is to help them begin to stop the negative ruminations.
The common explanation that their doctors give them is that there
is a chemical imbalance in their brain. But that's a half-truth:
the other half is that their low serotonin level is an index that
their life isn't working - their needs are not being met - not
that they've got something "wrong" with their brain
chemistry. Brain chemistry is not a cause, it is an effect.
you tell your clients how they're generating their depression,
We use an integrated approach combining behavioural, cognitive
and interpersonal methods, relaxation, humour, suggestions or
exercise - all based on what we call the "human givens",
our genetic endowment of needs and resources. Any skills the person
already has that can reconnect them with other people and the
wider community are particularly important. Above all, we get
them to use their imagination differently, and this is not as
difficult as it might seem. Our job is to stop them worrying and
dreaming excessively. We do all this in the first session, and
for some people that is enough. Others will need a little more
exactly are the human givens?
Human givens is a phrase psychotherapists, psychologists, educationalists
and others are increasingly using to encompass some new, large
organising ideas that are developing from what science is discovering
about the workings of the brain.
are all born with a rich natural inheritance - a partially formed
mind containing a genetic treasure house of innate knowledge patterns.
These patterns appear as physical and emotional needs that must
be met if our minds are to unfold and develop to their fullest
potential. How they connect with, and unfold in, the world determines
our own particular character, the clarity of our perceptions and
our own and our family's emotional health and happiness - as well
as the maturity of the society we create around us.
well as emotional needs we also are given resources to help us
meet those needs in the environment. Depression is usually caused
by worry about needs - for control, for meaning, for intimacy,
connection to a wider community - not being met and by misusing
the innate tools that help us meet those needs. Worry, for example,
is a misuse of imagination.
other techniques do you use?
We also use metaphor and storytelling. People are used to hearing
stories and anecdotes. An appropriate metaphor, contained in a
story, can bypass the defensiveness of the conscious mind and
go in as a seed to the right neocortex, which understands patterns.
Later on, when the client thinks about the therapy, that pattern
in the right neocortex will fire off and makes connections spontaneously,
so they have an "Aha!" experience. They can then "own"
the insight, and it is easier for them to work with it.
an example. A colleague's elderly client was depressed about becoming
incontinent. He began telling her about his uncle and aunt who
had a lovely old country house, where some of the family lived
and which everybody loved. And then gradually he started to introduce
the metaphor - that as the house grew older, it got damper, and
there were a few damp patches and plumbing problems, but nobody
seemed to mind, everybody still loved the house and they kept
bringing their families and their friends there. She came out
of her depression without even having known that she had had help.
there kinds of therapy that people suffering from depression would
do well to avoid?
shows that any therapy or counselling that encourages people to
introspect about their past will inevitably deepen depression.
This type of therapy is based on a misunderstanding going right
back to Freud. Freud had a model of the unconscious mind that
is very like a cesspool - emotions that weren't fully expressed
are held onto in this cesspool of repression, and the job of the
therapist is to release the noxious emotions and thereby free
the person. But research has shown quite unambiguously that dreams
do this for us every night. In other words, nature actually invented
the emotional flush mechanism long before Freud.
have also ventured into one of the biggest minefields of all,
psychosis, where you suggest that it is waking reality processed
by the dreaming brain.
does that work?
you need to separate out the REM state in which dreaming occurs
from the content, which is the dream. The REM state has the same
characteristics as the hypnotic state - the left neocortex is
generally much less activated, we have instant access to metaphor
and our emotions, and we are responding to our own emotional inputs
much more than we are to external reality. Now imagine someone
who has been so stressed and whose brain doesn't properly click
out of the REM state - the dreaming process has broken down -
and who is trying to make sense of the waking world. They are
going to experience all kinds of weird things.
Take hearing voices: left-hemisphere thoughts are still being
generated in a psychotic person although they are overwhelmed
by the power of the REM state that they are now largely operating
out of. The only way the dreaming brain of the right hemisphere
can make sense of left-hemisphere thoughts is to put it into a
metaphor of "hearing voices". And as in the dream state,
your sense of self is dissolved because you are acting out a dream
So if you are trying to process reality, you won't have a sense
of self with which to orient the experiences coming in, and you're
going to feel that somebody else must be controlling everything.
We are not saying that this interpretation is absolute truth,
but when it has been put to someone who has experienced psychosis,
they have said, thank goodness, that makes such sense to me.
do all these ideas go down with the psychotherapeutic community?
Are people hostile?
When we first started it was relatively easy. We were getting
people who were already open to our ideas. Later we met quite
a significant bit of hostility. We'd get mass walkouts of people
trained by the Tavistock Institute in London and places like that.
Schools of therapy follow the format of cults, with sacred texts
and high priests, so they tend not to be open to new ideas. But
the encouraging aspect was the response of people at the coalface
- occupational therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses
in the community and so on. They knew they didn't have any real
tools to help people. And they were totally willing to take on
board new ideas.
how does the European Therapy Studies Institute you helped to
found itself avoid becoming "religious"?
Science is based on the idea that any knowledge that we currently
hold is subject to revision in the light of further facts. We
incorporate the latest findings from all the sciences and we accept
and recognise that all the major schools of therapy have stumbled
on pieces of the truth, but what we need is to look at the information,
put it in a bigger model and integrate what is of value within
various scientific approaches. I must also say that perhaps one
of the biggest bars to the advancement of therapy in Britain is
the criterion used for recognising properly trained therapists.
For instance, research shows that it is absolutely irrelevant
whether or not therapists have themselves had therapy, in terms
of assessing their effectiveness.
effective therapy is crucial given the alarming rise in mental
illness. Has emotion spun out of control in our culture?
Our culture doesn't really have a handle on emotions. An emotion
is simply a box in which the brain initially codes incoming perception.
So it is put into the anger box, the anxiety box, the sadness
box. Our culture started to treat emotions as though they were
something sacred and the most significant aspect of a human being,
rather than seeing them as this rather primitive classification
system that usually needs further refinement. That is the job
of the higher cortex, which can fill in the thousand shades of
grey that often exist between the black and white of emotional
this explain how easily we become locked in conflicts?
Emotional arousal is the handmaiden of tyranny - in the home and
on the world stage. It stops clear thinking and facilitates the
rise of psychopathic personalities. The only long-term resolution
of conflict is to devise a social order that enables more people
to get their needs met.
of course, conflict, whether it is on the battlefield or in the
home, can result in people becoming traumatised...
is not the amount of abuse, nor the length of the time that it
went on, that is the key factor. It's the amount of damage that
has taken place to the personality, the failure to develop essential
life skills. It is when the whole of their life has become dysfunctional
that there is usually major long-term psychological education
and rebuilding of skills. That usually means that an intimate
member of the family has done the abuse and that has then interfered
with the unfolding of their developmental process.
about victims of torture?
People who can retain an element of control during long-term torture
or deprivation regimes are most likely to make a rapid recovery.
Even if it is only control over when they scream - counting to
ten, maybe, just before. We have treated people who have experienced
extreme trauma in conflicts in Eastern Europe, for example, and
we found them very responsive. And we have trained a team in Northern
Ireland, the Nova Project, which in the past 18 months has treated
more than 300 victims of the violence from both sides of the community
with amazingly good results.
do you treat trauma?
We know that not everyone develops post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is a proportion of people who are more vulnerable - very often
those with good imaginations. When you are exposed to a life-threatening
event, your initial reaction is to freeze to ascertain what is
going on. Most of us will then activate our fight-or-flight mechanism.
However, a proportion of people with good imaginations go into
what is essentially a hypnotic state. And they program the traumatic
event into their limbic system, where it is automatically triggered
by any event that resembles the original event.
do you deal with that?
We use guided imagery to produce a deeply relaxed, dissociated,
trance state, then we use a technique involving the metaphor of
a video, "replaying" the memories very fast to give
the person control. This pulls the trauma pattern out of the limbic
system into narrative memory. It works because the limbic system
is replaying the memories, but the body is physiologically relaxed.
This sends a different message to the amygdala, saying this event
isn't dangerous any more so it doesn't have to maintain the person
in a state of hyper- vigilance. This technique will be invaluable
in the aftermath of the current war, which is traumatising so
many soldiers and civilians.