Depression is a multifaceted and insidious disorder, nearly as complex as the brain itself. As research continues to suggest, the onset of depression can be attributed to an interplay of the many elements that make us human—namely, our genetics, the structure and chemistry of our brains, and our lived experience. Second only, perhaps, to the confounding mechanics of anesthesia, depression is the ultimate mind-body problem; understanding how it works could unlock the mysteries of human consciousness.
Emma Allen, a visual artist, and Dr. Daisy Thompson-Lake, a clinical neuroscientist, are fascinated by the physical processes that underlie mental health conditions. Together, they created Adam, a stop-motion animation composed of nearly 1,500 photographs. The short film illuminates the neuroscience of depression while also conveying its emotive experience.
“It was challenging translating the complicated science into an emotional visual story with scenes that would flow smoothly into each other,” Allen told The Atlantic.
“One of the most complex issues we had to deal with,” added Thompson-Lake, “is that there no single neuroscientific explanation for depression…While scientists agree that there are biological and chemical changes within the brain, the actual brain chemistry is very unique to the individual—although, of course, we can see patterns when studying large numbers of patients.” As a result, Allen and Thompson-Lake attempted a visual interpretation of depression that does not rely too heavily on any one explanation.
The film’s first sequence depicts the brain’s vast network of neuronal connections. Neurons communicate via synapses, across which electrical and chemical signals are exchanged. In a depressed patient’s brain, some of these processes are inefficient or dysfunctional, as the animation illustrates. Next, we see a positron emission tomography (PET) scan of a depressed brain, demarcated by darkened areas. Finally, the animation shows activity in the hippocampus and the frontal lobe. Abnormalities in the activity of both of these areas of the brain have been implicated in depression by recent research.
For Allen, one of the main objectives in creating Adam was to help dispel the notion that depression is a character flaw. “A common misconception is that the person is at fault for feeling this way, and that to ask for help is a weakness or embarrassing,” Allen said. “But depression has a physical component that needs treating.”
“The shame surrounding mental health still exists,” Allen continued. “In fact, in the case of Kate Spade, it was reported that she was concerned about the stigma her brand might face if this were made public.”
And who, exactly, is Adam? “Daisy lost a friend to suicide,” said Allen, “so the film is named in his memory.”
“Adam” was directed by animator Emma Allen and neuroscientist Daisy Thompson-Lake. It is part of The Atlantic Selects, an online showcase of short films from independent creators, curated by The Atlantic.