The Evolutionary Origin of Depression

Randolph Nesse, a psychologist and researcher in evolutionary medicine at the University of Michigan, likens the relationship between mild and clinical depression to the one between normal and chronic pain. He sees both pain and low mood as warning mechanisms and thinks that, just as understanding chronic pain means first understanding normal pain, so understanding clinical depression means understanding mild depression.

Dr Nesse’s hypothesis is that, as pain stops you doing damaging physical things, so low mood stops you doing damaging mental ones—in particular, pursuing unreachable goals. Pursuing such goals is a waste of energy and resources. Therefore, he argues, there is likely to be an evolved mechanism that identifies certain goals as unattainable and inhibits their pursuit — and he believes that low mood is at least part of that mechanism.

A study published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and reported in The Economist, seems to support this theory. Carsten Wrosch from Concordia University in Montreal and Gregory Miller of the University of British Columbia studied depression in teenage girls. They measured the “goal adjustment capacities” of 97 girls aged 15-19 over the course of 19 months. They found that those women who were best able to disengage from unreachable goals not only suffered milder episodes of depression but were also far less likely to sink into more serious forms of depression.

Mild depression can therefore be seen as a natural reaction to unattainable goals and a period of reflection to adjust one's aims in life. A failure of this mechanism and an inability to change one's ambitions can lead to more severe and deeper forms of depression. Persistence and determination are seen as positive qualities in societies such as America and yet such studies show us that a dogged refusal to face reality may not be such a useful quality.

“Persistence is part of the American way of life,” says Dr Nesse. “People here are often driven to pursue overly ambitious goals, which then can lead to depression.” As this article appears in The Economist - well-known for its belief that almost everything has a free-market solution - the author ends with the rather cheerless moral that "Depression may turn out to be an inevitable price of living in a dynamic society." They fail to see that it may well be a reaction to the very values that society seems to aspire to.

To see life as merely a sequence of goals and tasks is to turn humans into flow-charts and spreadsheets. The article states that the USA has the highest rate of depression in the world. This may be due to it having the highest rate of prescribed anti-depressants but that's a wider issue of medical ethics and pharmaceutical lobbying. The idea that serious clinical depression is fundamentally maladaptive actually seems to condone the goal-driven society that this study mildly criticises. That peope may have deeper desires that are not reflected in the available societal goals should be looked at. Having the psychological tools to explore one's real ambitions is more important than being prescribed medication so that one may refocus on acceptable goals. But, alas, there is little money to be made from meditation compared to medication.

One thing to take from this study is that depression is indeed a sign that something is not right in one's emotional life. It is the cue to take a long hard deep look at oneself. If the tunnel goes deeper than one expected, then so be it, but what else is there to do in life than to become one's true self?

A Permanent Cure for Depression: Prepare to Delve

A Permanent Cure for Depression

part 2 - Prepare to Delve

part 1 - Going Down

Prepare to Delve

I previously discussed that as the state of depression has a cause it must also have a solution. However down you may feel, this isn't a glib statement to cheer you up, but rather a call to arms to put into action your rational, logical mind to solve this very personal puzzle. Indeed, it has been shown experimentally that depressed people are more capable at problem-solving than non-depressed people; this is known in the psychology literature as depressive realism. Without the happiness pills many people seem to take, depressed individuals have a better grasp of potential outcomes without being suggestive to false hopes. The one caveat to this is that the situations be emotionally neutral. As soon as real life scenarios come to the fore with their messy personal and emotional parameters then depressed people's realism becomes tangled up and unable to function as effectively.

Herein, however, lies a possible path towards self-discovery: treat your condition in the third person. There are many paths to self-analysis and I just wish to go over a few during these articles. Different people respond to different triggers and the aim here is not to be all-inclusive but to outline some of the first steps. Treating your mind in the third person is a widespread method in the meditation literature. We feel so much in possession of our thoughts that we fail to notice how out of control they really are. This is a cultural programming that propagates the myth that we are truly in control without specifying who is really in control of what.

Just take the example of trying to remember something. You meet someone at a party; you recognise their face but just cannot recall their name. How do you dredge up that piece of information from memory? You cannot type in a keyword as it is that very word you are missing. You try to form connections. Where did you last see that person? What did you say to them? Were you formally introduced? Fanning out those connection may lead to a recall of their name... or maybe not. Having reached a blank you try to avoid contact so as not to show that you have forgotten who they are. But your mind continues to work behind the scenes. Your unconscious has not stopped that search algorithm. An hour later, whilst scoffing more canap├ęs and downing your cocktail the name suddenly pops into your mind with crystal clarity.

This is a common occurrence not just at parties but with anybody who is concentrated on solving a particular problem, be they a scientist, writer or artist. It seems to me difficult to ascribe any control to such processes. All we can hope for is to catch those flashes of memory or illuminations as they happen and thank the universe for the gift. There has to be a conscious recognition of the solution but its discovery cannot be said to be a conscious act. One cannot look consciously for something that one does not know beforehand what it is! However unfathomable the search algorithm might be it is also important to consciously set it in motion.

Having given your unconscious some credit for the discovery also leads to the possibility that your unconscious is also hiding a lot of other processes. Perhaps it is also hiding things that are not so virtuous, not so self-aggrandizing, not so... you! Having seen that depressed people have an enhanced capacity to appreciate naked reality, and given that so much of conscious reality arises from an unconscious source, putting the two together should turn your attention to that inner world that is both the source of brilliant intuitions as well as dark secrets.

At this point, turning inwards is not a form of narcissism but a realistic view in the mirror. I also have the feeling that many people believe there is actually nothing inside! Our culture is an apotheosis of surfaces, an adoration of form over content, that to take seriously one's own internal psyche is tantamount to exposing one's internal organs in public. All those books about becoming more emotional seem designed to popping one's cork without being self-conscious rather than a deeper awareness of how the pressure builds. Being depressed is as emotional as being effervescent.

The depressed individual now has two modes in which to attack their depression: rational thought and inner meditation. Before embarking on this quest there is an important piece of equipment to buy: a diary. It is important to stop going round in circles, to stop having the same morbid thoughts resurfacing. The only way to stop this is to give flesh to those thoughts; to write them down. With all our technology I still think pen and paper are best. Firstly, it forces you to physically write down the thoughts, ideas, insights and research findings. Secondly, people's minds work in different ways and insights are not always constructed of words; sometimes they may be pictures or icons, even music or other senses such as smells. Pictures or doodles whilst writing may well be as informative as the words and this is far easier to do on paper than on a computer. Hand-writing also takes more thought than just printing some online documents and then highlighting whatever seems vaguely interesting. Yes, you can still do that but then condense what you've learnt and write it down. Remember that you're looking for a key, one key, your key, and not a whole bunch of them jangling you to distraction.

If you don't like the idea of a personal diary then just call it something else, such as 'research findings'. I used to include pages and pages of discoveries in psychology, analysis, science, religion, logic and so on, not just personal experiences. Very often the answer to a question becomes obvious only after asking the right question. Writing a diary as a sequence of questions and answers also helps the unconscious in setting off that mysterious search algorithm. Rational thought and emotional reactions are here but two sides of the same quest. I think it a mistake to try and separate them as our minds consist of both functions. Attacking the problem rationally may well lead to an emotional response so be prepared for this. This may be in the form of dreams or visions, or perhaps an outpouring of emotion from some esoteric well. Write it all down as these are signs of progress.

Armed with your razor-sharp sword of rational thinking and your book of personal knowledge, you are ready to set forth on your quest. Any protective armour should be discarded. You might realize at some point that it is too heavy and weighing you down – discard it when you no longer need it. You may at this stage feel like Don Quixote, dressed in the parodies of knightly garb and risibly unfit for the challenges ahead. But don't let this dishearten you, the tools of a mental quest are in your mind. Nothing else is needed at the start; just the first mental steps.

Next article coming soon...

A Permanent Cure for Depression: Going Down

A Permanent Cure for Depression

Part 1 - Going Down

I write this from a personal perspective without any guarantee that this will work for everybody but in the hope that some will understand and work through their depression without the need for medication.

The last thing anybody suffering from depression wants to hear is the tired, lame “pull yourself together” routine from some chirpy soul who is so busy being cheerful that they can't see how crap life is! This actually extends to all those self-help guides that show you a hundred ways to ignore your depression in the hope it will magically disappear. If only you could fill your life with displacement activities then maybe, just maybe, they will displace your depression.

Well, depression is like a warning sign that something is not right. Allergies are similar signals that something is not functioning, and often allergies and depression exist together. If an alarm system goes off in your house you wouldn't just ignore it hoping it will eventually fall silent – you would investigate why it was triggered. It could have been set off by an external event, or it could be suffering from some internal fault. Whether the cause is external or internal it needs investigating – it won't cure itself.

Similarly, some depressions start with a specific trigger, perhaps the death of a loved one or some hoped-for event that didn't quite materialize. Sometimes a depression will creep up on you slowly and silently until a pall has spread over your whole world. Either way, I don't think anybody is born depressed. It is therefore possible for everyone to remember a time when they were not depressed. There is a difference between then and now. That borderland between being and not being depressed could warrant greater scrutiny. Whether it happened quickly or slowly, something happened. Whether the trigger was external or internal what is important is your reaction. That reaction most probably led to a chain reaction, most likely an abreaction to something else that was hidden below the surface. This is a signal that you need to devote more time to yourself.

I see many articles on the internet about depression. From my own experience, none of them would have been useful. My reasoning was as follows. Depression is a state of mind. There was a time when I was not depressed. The change of state happened in my mind (or body or emotions or the whole psychophysical entity we call a human being). Therefore, if I fell down the rabbit-hole then there must also be a way out. Just like those Dungeons & Dragons games, there may be lots of adventures before you find the key and then the right door – just know that there is a key and there is a door. It is not as simple as merely reversing something – that would be far too easy – but about exploring something that you may have ignored: your self.

The word “depression” itself conjures up images of a hole or something concave like a bunker where the only way out is upwards. Staring up at the stars from the gutter is a typically depressing vision care of Oscar Wilde. Much of the literature and many of the drugs attempt the same fallacious solution: to somehow catapult the depressed up into the pure air of happiness. But without real wings gravity will soon win. Perhaps this is counter-intuitive but sometimes the only way out is to go down deeper and down. To reach the next mountain-top requires going firstly down into the valley below. Most think that being depressed is already a low enough point, but maybe you're only half way down. That door won't open without the right key. That door may well open up into a shaft of light, but that key is down in the depths of your psyche. That is what the depression is telling you – to look deeper inside yourself.

Part 2 coming soon... Prepare to Delve now published.