Depression’s Evolutionary Roots

Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. write in Scientific American (via Theoretick):

Depression seems to pose an evolutionary paradox. Research in the US and other countries estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder sometime in their lives. But the brain plays crucial roles in promoting survival and reproduction, so the pressures of evolution should have left our brains resistant to such high rates of malfunction. Mental disorders should generally be rare — why isn’t depression? [...]

In an article recently published in Psychological Review, we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits. [...]

So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.

This analytical style of thought, of course, can be very productive. Each component is not as difficult, so the problem becomes more tractable. Indeed, when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test. [...]

Depression is nature’s way of telling you that you’ve got complex social problems that the mind is intent on solving. Therapies should try to encourage depressive rumination rather than try to stop it, and they should focus on trying to help people solve the problems that trigger their bouts of depression. (There are several effective therapies that focus on just this.) It is also essential, in instances where there is resistance to discussing ruminations, that the therapist try to identify and dismantle those barriers.

For those who think modernity or civilization or technology is the problem:

Or, perhaps, depression might be like obesity — a problem that arises because modern conditions are so different from those in which we evolved. Homo sapiens did not evolve with cookies and soda at the fingertips. Yet this is not a satisfactory explanation either. The symptoms of depression have been found in every culture which has been carefully examined, including small-scale societies, such as the Ache of Paraguay and the !Kung of southern Africa — societies where people are thought to live in environments similar to those that prevailed in our evolutionary past.

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  • http://davidmarsden.info David Marsden

    Depression is a process – a normal and rational coping response to a perceived loss, deprivation or absence. Most of us will feel depressed at some times in our lives and come through it ok, if not better equipped to deal with future problems.

    Depressed people are often also good at seeing things for how they really are – cutting through the bullshit.

    Some people get stuck, though, and that’s when it can become a severely disabling health condition that can stop people from performing even the simplest of daily living tasks. In some cases it can be life-threatening.

    Either way, I’m all in favour of people being encouraged and supported to talk about their problems and find their own solutions rather than just being drugged up, which merely masks the underlying issues.

  • http://blog.davidmarsden.info David Marsden

    Depression is a process – a normal and rational coping response to a perceived loss, deprivation or absence. Most of us will feel depressed at some times in our lives and come through it ok, if not better equipped to deal with future problems.

    Depressed people are often also good at seeing things for how they really are – cutting through the bullshit.

    Some people get stuck, though, and that's when it can become a severely disabling health condition that can stop people from performing even the simplest of daily living tasks. In some cases it can be life-threatening.

    Either way, I'm all in favour of people being encouraged and supported to talk about their problems and find their own solutions rather than just being drugged up, which merely masks the underlying issues.

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