Living Rhythmically

Module 2, Class 2: Rhythm, Rumination, and Habit Formation

Last class, the students introduced the relationship between rhythm and depression in part using Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun. This week, they introduced some psychological articles considering both biological and social contributors to depression, looking particularly at rumination, and talked about emotional-regulation as treatment.

The students suggested that rumination is an example of a very tight, maladaptive cycle. This is the case both in a psychic sense – the mind is trapped, repeating the same events over and over again – and in a physical sense. The pathways of the brain are literally organized according to the impulses that are repeatedly fired. Based on research on neuroplasticity, these pathways can be changed by changing one’s habits and thoughts. The result is that impulses travel a different path and the pathways of the brain change.

I mention this because it’s worth noting that rhythm is not simply a metaphor here but a physical phenomenon. Thought happens through pulses in the brain. Depression therefore manifests as a particular rhythm, a particular network of pulses travelling through brain pathways that are maladaptive in some way and therefore require re-organization. The implication then is that treatment, or regulation, is in part a matter of interrupting and re-organizing old rhythms and establishing new ones.

But this leads to a question about the way in which rhythm functions in the person, which the students picked up on. What exactly does treatment attempt with respect to rhythm? That is, are we talking about two different rhythms – one healthy and the other unhealthy – such that we must dismantle the one and establish the other? Or are we simply talking about a single rhythm that is broken and in some way and needs fixing?

My sense that it is more the former than the latter, but not in that we are talking about two rhythms that are absolutely distinguishable. Firstly, we are never talking about a single rhythm. The human organism is far too complicated, it seems to me, to suggest that a single rhythm can account for its many facets (for example, it involves multiple biological rhythms – heartbeat, brain pulses, breath, but also social ones). So, it’s not that there is one rhythm, it becomes maladaptive, and then needs to be restored in some way. But nor is it simply that we can identify two or more absolutely distinguishable rhythms, the one maladaptive and the other adaptive and we must simply shift from one to the other as if we’re dealing with a binary.

It’s more likely the case that a particular rhythm or part of a rhythm begins to become ruminative and maladaptive, begins to constrict and control the others. But the solution is not to simply switch over to some other rhythm. First, the process is anything but simple. Changing one’s thought patterns takes an incredible amount of work, with a lot of grey space in which maladaptive rhythms may dominate more or less in relation to other rhythms at any given time. They do not simply go away. Moreover, memories and rumination never completely evaporate nor are they problematic in themselves, but only when they become so tight that they dominate and constrict everything else. The response is therefore not a matter of leaving a certain rhythm behind, but loosening the cycle a little so that it can be incorporated into other rhythms in more cooperative ways.

Indeed, this is not restricted to treatment for rumination. It’s a matter associated with habit-formation more generally. I suspect that any time one is seeking to live into a new rhythm, different from those which have become one’s default rhythms, this involves not so much establishing something brand new as a loosening of those rhythms that are already established to make space for a new dimension. I suspect that this at first feels very much like an interruption but that the extant rhythms eventually adapt, incorporating the new motion, cycle, or repetition into a now more complex and deeper rhythm.

I suspect this is the case in part because this process occurs frequently in the rhythm of a poem. A poem begins with a particular rhythm but eventually devices are introduced that disrupt one’s previous experience and consequent expectations of that rhythm. However, the rhythm does not therefore disintegrate into incoherence but expands and adapts to include the disruption as part of the rhythm, making it more complex.

The question now is whether this conception has any practical implications for how we go about either treatment of depression or habit-formation more generally. Next class the students will be exploring the impact of devotional practices, which may open up possible applications.


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