Gravitational Repulsion: Is Zero Building An Eternally Expanding Universe?

Non-inflationary theories of the genesis of the universe or what we know as the big bang effectively only discuss the hydrogen and helium particles etc &c., that fill the universe or what occurred after the birth of the universe, and now that evidence has been shown[1] that the universe is actually expanding, it has led to questions of what could have been prior to the bang in a much more sophisticated manner. And there are multiple theories, such as Brane collision or the collision of two dimensions or that the universe is formed from within a black hole, all of which are interesting particularly with new areas of thought viz., superstrings and the cyclic universe model, but certainly not as persuasive as cosmic inflation and the multiverse theory.

It is a theory that the universe is constantly expanding, while the density remains at a constant and during the process of decay, pockets of new universes form making our universe one of multiple universes in an eternal stretch of fields. The idea of the cosmological constant λ was formulated by Einstein in his theory of general relativity to describe a static universe prior to Hubble’ discovery that the universe was actually expanding and at the time he himself even rejected this equation, however it appears that the answer for cosmic inflation and the uniformity of the universe can unexpectedly be explained by it. How? According to Alan Guth it can be explained through repulsive gravity, namely that negative pressure can push exponential expansion far greater than its capacity for decay.

At this point where I found myself throwing whatever it was in my hand, cursing and walking briskly around the room for no apparent reason other than sheer excitement. How can zero build an eternally expanding universe? At elementary level, the underpinning of the cosmological constant is that gravity is not always attractive and can behave repulsively,[2] a necessary formulation to counter the problem with a static universe and the big crunch [collapse of the universe]; the negative pressure will provide the force that pushes things apart while the positive three-dimensional field will keep it together as they work in uniformity and subsequently expand. Whilst Einstein’ depiction of the universe may have been incorrect and why the theory was abandoned, the equations nevertheless remained functional with the laws of general relativity, hence its revival particularly within particle physics.

Gravitational repulsion requires a negative pressure, the latter along with energy density can produce cosmic gravitational fields.[3] In Newtonian physics, gravity is an attractive force and yet in the absence of pressure [pressure is a form of gravity] produces deceleration, even with gravitational fields having negative energy. As a comparative analogy, Coulomb’s inverse-square law in proportion to two charges divided by the square of the distance between them[4] (viz. gravity), the constant in the law is that the force between two positive charges is proportional to the product of their charges (like how two positive charges repel one another) and to calculate the energy density in an electrostatic field, more charge would induce more electric force that it no longer depends on the quantity of the charge, thus the two cancel each other out. In gravitational energy terms, not everything is positive and there are negative energies, with positive energy inflating or getting larger as long as there is an accompaniment of increasing quantity of negative energy, thus both offset each other and you have expansion locked at an exponential rate. In order for inflation to begin, a portion of this negative pressure is required for the existence of the early universe, namely that within the context of the grand unification theory – the merging of strong and weak nuclear forces along with gravitation and electromagnetism into a singular interaction – and the energy of the electromagnetic forces interact to form a unified energy value. This very portion of what becomes the big bang and the universe as we know it would be about the size of 10^-28cm (assuming energies being at 10^16 GeV – the problem of thermodynamic arrow relates to inhomogeneity[5] in that anything larger or smaller would make the universe blow apart or suck away galaxies into black holes, an important algorithm vis-à-vis temporal asymmetry where the time-dependence of Ω-1 changes, of which I will discuss later). It then grows at an exponential rate to build what we know as the universe and the mass density does not decrease, namely that it expands at a constant density. Where does the energy – that is constant per volume during growth – come from? As energy equals to positive matter and negative gravity, they cancel one another out in perfect harmony and thus the total energy levels for the universe can be measured at zero.

The universe has no energy? *Quizzical look

Acceleration? This is where the concept of ‘dark energy’ [what I call the ‘will’ of the universe] which makes up about ¾ of the universe comes to the fore or what is known as vacuum energy, considered to be empty [although in cosmology whilst the structure is fundamental to empty space nonetheless contains an energy density, namely the conservation of energy can occur at zero]. The total energy at the beginning of the universe must be at zero with the negative contribution to the energy of the cosmic gravitational field cancelling the energy of matter. Inflation as a constant and eternal is only possible at 0 where matter is being created by the inflation but controlled by the non-uniformity in perfect harmony. The repulsive gravity that drives inflation nevertheless decays [t=10^-33 seconds after the big bang] but the inflation itself remains eternal because the growth of the volume is faster – hence the importance of the thermodynamic arrow of time – than the metastable rate of the decay; the material formed during this process thus becomes the particles required to produce the very same material that forms another universe, ad infinitum (radiation density during this time redshifts away – again I will discuss later in addition to how dark energy appeases the early specialness issue by smoothening the inflationary transition). States of equilibrium can nonetheless be achieved in unstable, disordered environments, such as balancing a spinning basketball on an index finger where for a brief moment in time is in perfect equilibrium but certainly not at a stable one. Inflation is really the physics of scalar fields φ and matter; the particles that make up the universe that form the stuff following the initial phase of inflation leading to the big bang are merely the quantum representation of the (Higgs) fields. In particle physics, the nonzero Higgs field – which is responsible for the emergence of elementary particle masses – contains both positive and negative contributions and has a constant value at every space time point. Observable quantum density fluctuations and tensor perturbations in scalar fields can explain the source of temperature anisotropies (along with universal isotropy, its massive size and relative homogeneity) in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation.[6] As the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing down under the influence of gravity, it indicates that vacuum energy is simply the energy of empty space and though empty has a mass density (which would mean that it is not actually empty).

Nevertheless, there are a plethora of issues raised at this point. The confusion or controversy really boils down to the concept of disorder and the cosmological epoch. Namely, is the universe a n-dimensional De Sitter space dSn, is it a 3-manifold Poincaré dodecahedral space, the flatness problem where Euclidian geometry applies only at a large scale; is it three-dimensional, four-dimensional, or nine-dimensional squished into three as string theorists propose? The other and perhaps more interesting one is the problem of entropy potentially being extremely low at this point. Whilst warm inflation – modelled on the standard or ‘cold’ inflationary theory[7] – purports a small portion of the vacuum energy density is converted to radiation, whereby the radiation density stabilises during the process of coupling [between inflation and radiation fields], during the decay phase, the scalar field oscillates to become radiation particles that slowly reheats the universe and when this occurs [reheating and inflation together] they become coupled into a unified process. The connection between the flatness problem and entropy is a complex one, particularly related to whether the early universe was adiabatic and why spatially the conditions at the beginning were flat. When inflation begins, the energy stored in the gravitational field as it expands increases whilst the energy density remains constant, thus the gravitational field itself has a repulsive energy density as it expands in volume, with the total energy being very close to 0 without violating the conservation of energy. It may mean that inflation requires a non-adiabatic, extremely low entropy to occur, entropy being the measure of randomness and low entropy itself considered perfectly ordered. If inflation increases entropy, it appears that at the point of inflation, the entropy had to be smaller and the uniformity of the energy density during inflation becomes responsible for the low entropy conditions. What is currently in debate is namely why – in the past – did the universe begin with low entropy and yet the product being the second law of thermodynamics?

I want to maintain that the observable universe (and one should note the keyword here being ‘observable’) would imply that the universe is flat (k=0) or that inflation is pushing Ω to 1 with Ω being the mass density divided by critical mass density, thus the asymptotic curvature of the universe is being exponentially flattened by the expansion at 10^35 seconds after the bang. What that means is that should Ω=1 the curvature must equal to 0 (or be extremely close to it) and the effect would be infinite expansion. Thinking about that model, such expansion could causally be the precise reason we have an arrow of time fixed in perfect and irremediable harmony, although no theory of randomness can explain the arrow of time and the problem of low entropy during the early phase of the universe and the successive phase transition of expansion and cooling. When assessing temporal asymmetry, however, the concept of low entropy during the beginning phases of the universe – whilst objectionable or perhaps superfluous – is nevertheless useful when ascertaining the thermodynamic arrow.

The second law of thermodynamics purports that the time flows in a linear direction as we know it, namely from past to present to future. The question here is that as the universe expands and progresses over this time, from an ordered state – namely that of low-entropy – it is moving toward a high-entropy disordered universe. Entanglement in ordinary quantum mechanics, which can perhaps work as a correlation in that the measurements of the relationship between two particles relies on contact sometime in the past, the interaction or exchange following even when these particles are at a far distance and in a disordered state from one another remain organised and can even affect one another’ quantum state. As a consequence, while separate their properties can only be measured as one. There is an invisible but an active link between the particles. In quantum field theory, entanglement entropy rather than being a correlation contains causality under the assumption that symmetry of a pure state that has ergodic properties.

The total energy at the beginning of the universe started at very close to zero and the negative contribution to the energy of the gravitational field cancels the energy of matter and thus repulsive gravity drives inflation with the growth volume faster than the decay, allowing the physical universe to expand exponentially. We are able to confirm relative homogeneity and isotropy through the fluctuations imprinted in the anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background and gives light to the conditions of the early universe, which was once filled with plasma but where photons themselves – whilst moving at the speed of light – remained immobile in the density and so velocity stood at zero. As the universe expanded, the plasma cooled and became a gas and as such cosmologists began to question thermal equilibrium, the second law of thermodynamics and entropy, the latter allegedly being low during the early epoch of the universe. Thus in continuation, the problem we face here is that as the universe expands and progresses over this time, from an ordered state – namely that of low-entropy – toward a disordered high-entropy, the latter itself dependent on the arrow of time, how exactly can the early universe in the past, where it was hotter and denser and had a stronger gravitation pull, be perfectly smooth?

Hubble expansion, which is about 70km per megaparsec, is the expansion rate that we see at present with the inflationary epoch ending 10^-32 seconds after the big bang to expand at the rate of the Hubble constant.[8] If the universe was thus once condensed to a very small size until it expanded at a factor of 10^26 due to inflation and eventually ending that lead to a fixed or steady expansion as we know is now taking place, the process itself nevertheless preserves the subatomic smoothness that the initial conditions held. This is particularly coherent when assuming that we are a part of a multiverse. In Einstein’ GR field equations, he applied the cosmological constant Λ in an attempt to explain a static universe prior to Hubble’ expanding one and thus later rejected it, however for both inflation and dark energy, the ubiquitous Λ becomes a necessary algorithm that binds the theory together as the energy density of the latter in particular causally drives expansion and a flat universe that can expand infinitely. With Riemannian geometry, cosmological observations of the CMB radiation through the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) have measured angles that add to exactly 180 degrees, which in a Euclidean space purports a universe that is k=0 or flat[9] and as its density remains constant as it expands, dark energy or the energy of empty space itself plays a vital role. The horizon problem also shows that the temperatures at different directions of the CMB radiation are uniform to almost 1 part in 10^4 [accounting a minor electric dipole] or 1 part in 10,000 and therefore almost the same – something that should not actually be possible – purporting that the only solution to this thermal equilibrium is inflation. That is, for example, regions billions of light years in opposite directions must communicate or interact in some manner to reach this symmetry and the explanation is that they – at one point in time – were interacting and the process of inflation has stretched them out into altered directions, thus favouring the model of an isotropic and homogenous universe.

As there is an arrow of time and as the universe is expanding, in the past the universe would have been infinitesimally smaller particularly as we reach the beginning of time. As such, the density and heat would have been higher – something clearly attributable to the CMB radiation – and the fact that perfection or a state of low-entropy is requisite should we adhere to thermodynamic laws and the direction of time, the conditions of the big bang becomes formidable. In addition, if the initial conditions were not perfectly ordered and smooth, it would have fizzled away. As mentioned, assuming the universe is geometrically flat because of the ratio between the mass density and the critical mass density being very close to Ω =1 and stabilised through the force of repulsive gravity as illustrated by the cosmological constant, is the fabric of the universe smoothing as it expands. I will write more about the Arrow of Time and Thermodynamics in my next post.

[1] Stephen T. Thornton and Andrew Rex, Modern Physics for Scientists and Engineers, Cengage Learning (2012) 578
[2] Behram N. Kursunogammalu, Stephan L. Mintz, Arnold Perlmutter, The Role of Neutrinos, Strings, Gravity, and Variable Cosmological Constant in Elementary Particle Physics, Springer Science & Business Media (2007) 182
[3] Maurizio Gasperini, The Universe Before the Big Bang: Cosmology and String Theory, 160
[4] John Gribbin, Mary Gribbin, Jonathan Gribbin, Q is for Quantum: An Encyclopedia of Particle Physics, Simon and Schuster (2000) 92
[5] Murray Gell-Mann and James B. Hartle, Time Symmetry and Asymmetry in Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Cosmology,  (February, 2008)
[6] Alejandro Gangui, Cosmic Microwave Background Anisotropies and Theories of the Early Universe, SISSA-International School for Advanced Studies (1995)
[7] Mar Bastero-Gil, Arjun Berera, Ian G. Moss, Rudnei O. Ramos, Theory of non-Gaussianity in warm inflation (Dec 2014)
[8] Cesare Emiliani, Planet Earth: Cosmology, Geology, and the Evolution of Life and Environment, Cambridge University Press (1992) 68
[9] Carlos I. Calle, Einstein For Dummies, Wiley (2005) 309
[10] Don S. Lemons, A Student’s Guide to Entropy, Cambridge University Press (2013) 72

Guest Post: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Sublime

By Phil Cava


The impact of  Greek culture on the world  from the 5th Century BC forward has had long lasting foundational effects on Western Culture. Man’s concept of himself  expanded and evolved through the works of philosopher/scientists, poets, tragedies, historians, sculptors, architects, and others, during this  period.

The Greeks invented a conception of beauty, which still sways us. Classical beauty gave privilege to the purity of form, to proportion and to symmetry over content, and matter  The thoughts of Plato and Aristotle were foundational for Western Culture’s determination of what constitutes Beauty. Against this sway mid-twentieth century artist Barnett Newman in his famous essay “The Sublime is  Now”  (1948)  said that the Greek conception of beauty was conflated with Christianity which led to:

“Man’s natural desire in the arts to express his relation to the Absolute became identified and confused with the absolutisms of perfect creations…with the fetish of quality…so that the European artist has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity.



                                           Adam                                                          Eve

Edmund Burke was “first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive” (1) Burke thought of the sublime as a kind of negative pleasure, the delight experienced in the removal of pain or our  attraction to  profoundly disturbing aesthetics  such as Kramer’s portrait,  which no one can look away from.  Or on a more serious note, the figural portraits of Lucian Freud, which repel and attract us simultaneously,  ultimately we, or at least I can’t look away.

Kant picks up on Burke’s concept of sublimity in his 1790 “Critique of Judgement”. Kant has a lot to say, and it is not possible to bypass his contribution to our understanding of the Greek gift.  He separates general knowledge from our sense of beauty and the sublime. Judgements regarding general knowledge are based on determinate concepts, concepts which are bounded by our imagination and whose totality is grasped by our faculty of reason. This is how particulars become assumed under universals, and how a work of art can be a universal particular.   Kant contrasts determinate  judgements  with reflective judgements. In reflective judgements the limitations of our determinate conceptions are challenged. Our imagination opens up mental space wherein new concepts,  judgements, relationships become possible, in the free play of reason with our imagination pleasure arises.

Kant states that our judgement of taste is aesthetic  (45S1):

“In  order to decide whether anything is beautiful or not, we refer the representation, not by the Understanding to the Object for cognition but, by the Imagination (perhaps in conjunction with the Understanding) to the subject, and its feeling of pleasure or pain

For Kant the feeling of pleasure or pain we experience is based on the ability of our imagination, our reasoning and our judgements to correspond with one another or not. Judgements concerning  determinate concepts can be agreeable, pleasurable, but they are limited determinately. Reflective judgements are pleasurable in themselves, in the very action of their conception. Determinate judgements and reflective judgements are bound by our imagination.  They are finite in the sense that they are bound, unlike the Sublime.

Kant differentiates  beauty from the sublime he states (BkIIS23)  “The Beautiful and the Sublime agree in this, that both please in themselves. Further, neither presupposes a judgement of sense nor a judgement logically determined, but a judgement of reflection.”

The sublime is a formless object whose  totality escapes unambiguous interpretation. The imagination fails to synthesize the power of the Sublime determinately or reflectively, but  reason is able to gape at the whole in its freedom from the determination of the senses.  Kant agrees with Burke that the Sublime attracts and repels, and he too calls it a negative pleasure, it is a dynamic concept for Kant. Unlike Burke, he includes a subjectively beautiful  aspect to the  sublime.

Kant tracing of the pleasure/pain we experience in the beautiful seems correct enough, but in the playful congruence of our conceptions with our understanding generating pleasure/pain he accepts the Greeks gift.  The physical source of pain and pleasure is the body.  We learn what it is to feel pleasure and pain and these feelings drive us erotically, where the erotic is thought of as man’s instinctive drive to reproduce, to conceive, it invent. (as in Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, a “pregnant soul”)

Evidence for man’s instinctual drive to create  seen on the walls of the Ice Age caves in various parts of the world. The fantastic renderings of animals in these caves demonstrates accomplished art dating back 40,000 years.  The distribution of these caves in  disparate places during the same time periods, in France/Spain and Indonesia, suggest that man’s desire to create art  is an integral part of what it means to be a human, as  Newman said:  “For artists are the first men.

The Renaissance conflated the Greek ideal of Beauty with the Christian legend.  “It was no idle quip that moved Michelangelo to call himself a sculptor rather than a painter, for he knew that only in his sculpture could the desire for the  grand statement of Christian sublimity be reached…Michelangelo knew the meaning of Greek humanities of his time involved making Christ, the man into Christ who is god…” (Newman-2)

The Renaissance view of the absolute as perfection, as beauty remained the controlling value system that subsequent generations of artists have had to struggle with.  Not until the 20th Century that artists began to search for new ways to realize their works.   Still most artist’s works remained bound to the representational world either directly or by metaphor.

images (1)


Comparing  Picasso’s Guernica to Jackson Pollock’s 69:

Where Picasso’s Guernica uses the pictorial plane to express the fear and the terror of war, in pictorial representation, Pollock’s 69 suggests an urgency, a sense of conflict with no representation beyond the paint on his canvas.  We can wrap our heads around what Picasso’s is intimating; Pollock’s work is much more ambiguous, it draws us in and we wander and wander, feeling its sense of conflict and urgency, but it denies any determinate point of view. Its formless formal purity is foundational but this purity is not based on the Greek conceptions of the purity of form and matter. Pollock allows matter to be itself on the pictorial plane.

Fransaw Lyotard railed against  the meta-narrative of classical beauty and the absolute that has dominated art values since Plato’s time.  Modern science has taught us that the what we see does not include all that’s there in what we see. Lyotard’s sees modern artists such as Joyce, Kandinsky, Picasso, Dali and others attempting to  put forward  the inexpressible in their works.  A negative space, that defies representation, the sublime.

His theory separates these artist into two groups:  1) those whose works intimate the ineffable indirectly, modern as in Picasso’s Guernica and  2)those whose works are directly aimed at conveying what can’t be conveyed in the classical meta narrative, postmodern works such as Pollock’s 69 (or  look at Rothko’s Chapel which also includes Barnett Newman’s Broken Olelisk.)  

This suggests, in a  non-periodizing way the structure difference between  Modern Art and Postmodernism  lies in a methodic difference in which the aesthetic affect, how we feel upon viewing these works differ and what those feelings suggests to us. Where Modernism’s uses representation in the pictorial plane to  express the Sublime,  Postmodernism uses the pictorial plane itself  as its  expression of the Sublime, Lyotard’s expression of the inexpressible.  



Broken Obelisk



Barnett Newman,
Edmund Burke,
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment 1790, Section 1  (pg 44) and Book 2 Section 23 (pg 97)
Plato’s Symposium 208/209



Darkness Visible: Depression, Anxiety, Disassociation

A story of personal courage and the deliverance from an unrelenting suffering can have a great effect on the motivation of an audience, particularly those that feel crippled in their anguish and cannot appreciate the hope of any release from the prison they find themselves locked in. Indeed, as William Styron states: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.” If one suffers a physical injury, they experience pain and the suffering comes with it, but the elusive and subjective experience of depression is an injury that causes a similar experience of physical pain; the only difference is not knowing where it is coming from. Styron’ short but very powerful memoir Darkness Visible touches on the profound and debilitating experience of depression that almost led him to suicide.

The author of this astonishing memoir begins his personal and heartbreaking decline into depression while at a hotel in Paris, his presence there to accept the prestigious Prix del Duca award for his literary talent. At the time of acceptance, he felt honoured and privileged for the inclusion of his work among many other talented writers. But, it is in France that he begins his tale of the eventual decline into the somber malaise that would almost take his life. “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description.”[1]

Clearly affected by insomnia, Styron confesses to have taken the drug Halcion to aid him to sleep the night before the award ceremony; however his deteriorating condition was clear months in advance as he monitored his own gradual decline of “malaise and restlessness and sudden fits of anxiety.”[2] His previous and lengthy reliance on alcohol was abruptly put to an end that was once used to assist in managing these feelings of anxiety.[3] His depressive state impacted on his capacity to concentrate and his knowledge of medical conditions did not practically assist him to overcome the feelings of “gloom crowding in on me, a sense of dread and alienation and, above all, stifling anxiety,”[4] that he faced. During the ceremony in his honour, he outrageously declined to stay on to the luncheon organised months in advance for him and the members that selected him because of the illness that led to “confusion, failure of mental focus and lapse of memory,”[5] sieged at certain times later in the afternoon by “panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.”[6]

But Styron did what many people often fail to do; he sought help, conscious that his mind was dissolving and his distress increasing, he knew that any further denial would lead to a catastrophic result. After the ceremony and other commitments were over, he collapsed onto his hotel bed, entranced by the feeling of “supreme discomfort… a condition of helpless stupor in which cognition was replaced with ‘positive and active anguish’”[7] as well as being afflicted by the inability to sleep, loss of appetite and a decline in the libido. The intensity of his exhaustion gave him the sensation profound misery and self-loathing (what he refers to as depression’ premier badge) that made him “zombie-like”[8] and the storm of madness – or the storm of murk[9] – arrived in time for him to become aware that if this experience of “rare torture”[10] continued it would cost him his life. Death had become a daily presence, where items around them home became instruments to enable this possibility, what he admitted when he chose to visit psychiatrist ‘Dr. Gold’. While Dr. Gold offered consolation, Styron could barely process and describe his ‘desolation’ together with the fact that pharmacology had an impact on his ability to function; while anti-depressants can assist in some serious cases, both psychotherapy and pharmacology did not help.[11]

“The pain is unrelenting and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come.”[12] This eventual hopelessness that the pain of this elusive experience will go away left him in such a wretched state that he chose to throw away his life into the garbage, effectively choosing to die. As he prepared for the necessary arrangements that would lead to his end, one fateful night he had an epiphany. There was a joy available to him and he remembered the hope of happiness that was present; he realised that he could not die, he could not kill himself. The next day, he admitted himself to hospital. His final words to those afflicted by the debilitating illness is to see this hope, that “whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”[13]

There are a range of depressive disorders from major depression that can be short-term up to very long term dysthymia and the severity of these experiences can differ, although usually the symptoms are disabling enough to interfere with usual activities and can be characterised by a melancholic change of mood that often slows a person down. While the brain regulates our moods, for many uninformed people the idea that depression is caused solely from a chemical imbalance fails to consider a number of other factors that interact with or trigger the onset of the disease. The cause of depression is just as elusive as the experience itself, but there are a number of physical, environmental and cognitive factors that can influence the development in addition to brain chemicals including genetic, health and wellbeing, as well as drug and alcohol abuse and chronic medical conditions.

Depression is a non-communicable disease and the leading cause of disability worldwide.[14] As Styrone himself indicated, it is a disease.[15] In Australia, there are currently three million people living with depression or anxiety, with an estimated 45% experiencing this debilitating mental health condition in their life and only 35% of those three million accessing treatment to support their recovery.[16] Those living with the condition experience difficulties with personal relationships, careers and their general well-being and become more prone to substance abuse as well as an increased risk of health problems. There are risks that can increase “triggers” such as a loss of a job or financial loss[17] or chronic health conditions such as injuries from a car accident or ailments such as osteoporosis or arthritis.[18] At a global level, depression effects more than 300 million people with the second highest cause of death for young people aged 15-29 is suicide, whereby depression is known to lead to suicide and a total of 800,000 people take their own lives each year.[19]

“The madness results from an aberrant biochemical process. It has been established with reasonable certainty (after strong resistance from many psychiatrists, and not all that long ago) that such madness is chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as the result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a depletion of the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin, and the increase of a hormone, cortisol.”[20] With a number of medical improvements vis-à-vis technology, brain imaging have enabled scientists to access a more clear picture of the effect depression can have on the brain itself. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) among other sophisticated and computed techniques continue to show that activities in the brain significantly alter when a person is experiencing depression. A person can be affected by chemical neurotransmitters that transmit messages between neurons of the brain and when low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine – organic chemical/hormone – the primary cause an imbalance between these transmissions impair mood and behaviour.


The regions of the brain that play an important part of regulating mood and ultimately with depression include the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hippocampus all within the limbic system[21] and they are less active or significant reduce in size because of the suppression of the production of new nerve cells in the region[22] and why antidepressants can significantly increase neurotransmitters in the brain. The limbic system “has a major role in producing emotion and motivational behaviour. Rage, fear, sexual response, an intense arousal can be localized to various points in the limbic system.”[23] The amygdala in particular and it is often triggered by highly emotional events (strongly related to fear) including a death of a loved one or a severe car accident, and can affect the thalamus that directs sensory experiences to the cerebral cortex and inputs reactions and how one thinks into proper function. When the amygdala is activated, it initiates the evolutionary ‘flight or fight’ and thus gains immediate access and bypassing the function of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for sensory, motor and association including learning and decision making. Additionally, the hippocampus within the temporal lobes play a predominant role long-term memory and recollection and the amygdala is can be activated by the experience of fear and a memory of a fearful experience that occurred earlier in life, leading to highly stressful experience that impairs the hippocampus. Thus, as the scans show, those experiencing depression appear to have a smaller hippocampus in size.

The standard reaction and ultimate taboo that renders comments on the subject of mental health concerns to be, “you’ll pull out of it” or “we all have bad days”[24] have only made the subject of depression even more difficult to socially articulate. It could also be why – together with our limited cognitive abilities should the trauma be experienced during childhood – that people often repress trauma that is revived later in life. Depression has been linked to other concerns including anxiety and experiences of disassociation, where feeling of an aching loneliness is accompanied “by a second self – a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it.”[25] Disassociation has been termed as: “a mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity.”[26] This includes feeling a sense of depersonalisation with a lack of control of connection to themselves. Styron shows as dissociative disorders and the eventual loss for any sense of self leads is very closely linked to the experiences of both anxiety and depression. “Nothing felt quite right with my corporeal self; there were twitches and pains, sometimes intermittent, often seemingly constant that seemed to presage all sorts of dire infirmities.”[26] A person who experiences conditions like disassociation, which is descriptive of a detachment of the self from one’s own environment is doing so as a defence mechanism to cope with potentially difficult conditions. Anxiety, can be described as an ongoing and distressing feeling as Styrone felt later in the afternoon that interfered with his daily life.

The onset of all these conditions are not fully known, although there are clear indicators such as social and environmental conditions including peer pressure, domestic issues or difficulties at work, traumatic event or experience, health and well-being including a poor diet, drug and alcohol abuse as well as chronic physical ailments, the experience of depression is unique to every individual because our experiences with the external world are different.  For Styrone, his substance abuse, in this case alcohol, was used for over forty years to become the “magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination”[27] and was a means to “calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long.”[28]

In as much as Styron was influenced by the literary genius of Albert Camus, I too have been greatly inspired by this fascinating memoir that describes the rise and fall of a terrible illness, one in which I too have personally experienced. The lack of control, the horrible pain that one cannot describe, and mostly the helplessness was for me pushed to the furthest of reaches when I was taunted by other people who had neither the compassion nor comprehension for how I was feeling. Unlike Styron, I had no help, no support, but circumstances or “the healing process of time”[29] enabled me to eventually recover, however this memoir shows the importance of seeing professionals for help, of the importance of the love of people around you. The subject has for a long time been taboo and indeed, as a worker with refugee and asylum seekers, mental health concerns still remains taboo for many cultures and something I have experienced first-hand with my family and especially my mother. I highly recommend that everyone reads this concise, but accurately clear picture of this terrible illness.



[1] 5
[2] 6
[3] 39
[4] 9
[5] 12
[6] 14
[7] 15
[8] 16
[9] 46
[10] 48
[11] 55
[12] 61
[13] 85
[14] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.
[15] 5
[16] Op. Cit, Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008).
[17] Price, R.H., Choi, J.N. and Vinokur, A.D. (2002). Links in the chain of adversity following job loss: How financial strain and loss of personal control lead to depression, impaired functioning, and poor health. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 7(4), 302-312.
[18] Jacka, F.N., Pasco, J.A., Henry, M.J., Korn, S., Williams, L.J., Motowicz, M.A., Nicholson, G.C., Berk, M. (2007). Depression and bone mineral density in a community sample of men: Geelong Osteoporosis Study. Journal of Men’s Health and Gender. Vol. 4 (3), pp.292-297.
[19] World Health Organisation, Depression: Fact Sheet, February 2017
[20] 46
[21] Op. Cit, Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008).
[22] Ibid.
[23] Dennis Coon, John O. Mitterer, Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior, Cengage Learning (2008) 69
[24] 37
[25] 64
[26] 43
[27] 39
[28] 40
[29] 32