NY Times Magazine Article: Depression's Upside

By Jonah Lehrer, a writer on neurology topics - author of the Frontal Cortex Blog and the book How We Decide

Article here

It basically argues that depression may have a purpose from an evolutionary psychology perspective - it keeps us focused to address problems that are fundamental in our lives and need attention before we can move past them. He discusses evolutionary psychology as a field, discusses the use of anti-depressants and how while they may address symptoms, they don’t address the underlying cause of depression/focus and therefore may not be truly effective.

I have no dog in this hunt - and I rarely do more than lurk in IMHO and MPSIMS threads about depression - but I found the article fascinating and have to believe that Dopers who either study Depression or have lived with it and researched it on that basis would have a POV.

ETA: oh, and while searching for the link to the article I found this counter-argument in a different blog. Interesting points there, too.

Did you read the article? Any thoughts on that perspective?

I’ve found in my personal struggles that depression is the very lack of the ability to address problems. If I need to do something to change my life for the better, needing to sleep twelve hours a day isn’t helpful.

One of my CBT books briefly mentions this idea in the first chapter as a possible explanation, but I am not sure I buy it either. Why would it be common in new mothers, who need all the energy/strength they can get to raise a child? Or able to first start or flare up when everything really does seem objectively fine right beforehand (to that person and those close to them)? Sometimes it is just random, and I’ve yet to experience it as helpful.

It all sounds pretty psychoanalytic to me and I don’t buy it at all. Acute depression is as much, if not more a physical disease as it is a psychological one. Appetite can shut down, the need for sleep goes through the roof and energy levels plummet. I assume the people that write this stuff have never visited an inpatient psychiatric ward where they treat people with severe depression. Some look almost identical to corpses at first glance in skin tone and body posture. You can’t tell they aren’t dead until they scream. Repeated, moderate depression is to KO a normal person out the game of life and ruin everything.

It sounds like the author is talking about mild depression but that is never made clear probably because he doesn’t understand that depression is a loaded word to begin with and likely has a wide range of physiological causes and a huge spectrum of outcomes. It is dysfunctional to debilitating most of the time. It also sounds like he is using the layperson’s definition of depression to mean a deviation from the norm for temporary sadness and anxiety when that isn’t what it means. Tiger Woods might say he is depressed right now because he is losing everything and the world has turned on him but that isn’t clinical depression unless he was already prone to it. It is guilt, remorse, shame, and a bunch of other ill-defined psychological buzzwords. That type of introspection can help someone get out of a bad situation and make better choices in the future but it won’t help someone stationed in Alaska who gets bad Seasonal Affective Disorder or a person who does almost everything right but comes from a biological family that is prone to rapid mood swings with no external cause.

It is great that people try to take evolution and see how it fits in with lots of different scenarios but there is a huge logical flaw in the writer’s argument even if his argument somehow turned out to be correct. Evolution produces plenty of mis-adaptations that get selected out and tend to eliminate certain traits or even whole biological lines. Many people think that it only advances in a positive direction and that is completely false. Depression is much more likely to produce negative selective behavior through suicide and risky behaviors than deep introspection unless he is only talking about the transitory sadness and anxiety everyone gets when they realize they can do things better. That doesn’t qualify as true depression for me though.

There is one benefit to depression although it isn’t a pleasant one. Depressed people can often see themselves and the world in a much more realistic way than people who have a normal mood (read, usually more negative) based on independent ratings. Many non-depressed people walk around with rose-colored glasses on all the time and depression can yank those right off your head.

I give the paper a D+ but only because of the effort put into it. The content and scientific value could be published in the magazine Psychology Today as pool-side reading material but it is horrible scientifically.

There seems to be more discussion of the upside of depression recently. I seem to have seen a book on it somewhere I think, and here’s another article about another guy that feels that depression has benefits. Dr. Paul Keedwell. I think there’s some truth to what they’re saying but I also agree with this part of the article which notes that there are severe limitations on how to look at their findings:

You could argue that you would solve the problem of a broken foot better without pain, but the pain is only there to tell you that your foot is broken, not to help you fix your foot.

Depression might be your brain’s way of informing you that there is a psychological problem you need to address. Like pain informs you that there is a physical problem you need to address.

It’s 1am here, so I haven’t read the article and might be completely off the mark.

But sleep is the least of your problems. Depression makes you feel like you can’t fix the problem. It makes you feel like your brain is shutting down. It does the opposite of making you want to work on it.

On the other hand, a broken foot makes you want to do at least one thing that will help: not put weight on it or use it. I can’t think of anything about depression does that makes you want to do something that will actually help. You have to fight every last step of the way to do anything helpful.

Before reading the article, I thought that Anderson might not be talking about depression at all, but about sadness. Having read the article, I’ll have to say that the position as summarized is complete rubbish. The ineptitude of equating depression and rumination is breathtaking; yes, the depressed ruminate, but they do so in a different (and pathological) way from the healthy person who is giving careful thought to a new or difficult problem or situation. There is indeed a new and useful idea here, one that helps explain why depression is so common, but it’s not the one in the article. If rumination is a built-in response to difficulty (and perhaps less stressful than direct and ill-considered action), then depression is a fault in this response, one that perpetuates the process beyond any useful end, and in fact preventing any useful end. Similarly, anxiety might be characterized as a sort of ruminative frenzy. There are other aspects to these conditions that make the rumination hypothesis incomplete at best, but it would be interesting to see what sort of activity the prefrontal cortex displays during major depressive episodes, panic attacks, etc.

I found the points made in the rebuttal to be very well taken, and they echo my other objections quite well.

I believe that apathy that comes with depression can be useful because it can prevent you from doing harmful things. It takes away your will to act right as you are having the worst impulses and thought processes

The obvious example is suicide. It takes a lot of energy to choose and plan a suicide. For some people, depression may take away the energy to do that until the acute period has passed. It is possible that isolation can be beneficial because it prevents you from lashing out at your friends and family in the future. A disinterest in hobbies, etc. can prevent you from making massive mistakes that ruin these things for the future.

Or put this way. most depressed people can weather it without making too many life-changing mistakes. But a manic person can ruin their entire life in a single episode, and almost certainly will alienate everyone they know after just a few incidents.

Anyway, I have been depressed before, and when I’ve been depressed, it really did turn out that I had some genuine life issues to work out. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick, but I was able to identify those issues, work through them, and return to life better equipped to handle it. The next time depression came knocking. I knew what to do, and while it wasn’t exactly a breeze, I had the tools I needed to get through it quickly. I figured out what was bothering and tried to find a new perspective without letting depression stop me from doing my thing- and it worked! I know it doesn’t work that way for everyone, but that’s how it worked for me.

I thought the argument evolutionary psychology had for depression was that it serves as a social adjustor – to evoke attention and care from the rest of the tribe or to signal that the individual is misplaced in ranking within the group or what have you (depending on the type of behavior manifested). As an individual adaptation it seems to be, er, singularly lacking in advantages (though that’s hardly a bar from an evolutionary perspective of course).

Various individuals who have become famous and who also suffered from depression have offered all kinds of explanations for why it was really a good thing to have, but these have always struck me as more personal mythmaking than useful observations.

The article assumes some problem that needs to be solved outside of the illness of depression itself. Not all depression is situational.

Further, one of the symptoms of depression is inability to concentrate. Yet the article says:

I just don’t think Andrews and Thomson convey that they have the least notion of what depression feels like from the inside. Sometimes the worst of it was just feeling numb. I felt like I was wrapped in cotton. At first I didn’t speak and there was a brief time I didn’t know my name.

Finding my psychiatrist did turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me, but those things happened after the depression was under control medicinally.

I read the article yesterday, and I happen to suffer from mild to moderate depression myself. It appears that the article was written by intellectuals who haven’t the faintest idea of what depression truly entails. You can read up, down, and sideways about depression, and include the symptoms in your study from rote memory, but to understand the force behind depression, you have to have LIVED it. Unfortunately, classifying it as a kind of sadness that makes the depressed person analytical, insightful, empathic, is just taking the meloncholy portion of it and applying it to common personality traits of the depressed person.

IMHO, depression has served me very poorly, but ALSO positively. I was motivated enough to get on medication and start living a more joyful existence. Before that, my low moods were almost unbearable. I don’t quite know how this serves me well in the evolutional sense. This crud has most likely been passed on to my kids. I will say this. I see the world in a way that people see as gifted common sense. I can make sense out of things that people try to justify away with mindless platitudes. The people that gravitate to me are the ones that have a difficult times making sense of things, they are usually not very grounded. I consider this my gift and my strength. Seeing the world through dark lenses and then again through “normal” lenses offers a clearer perspective (if that makes any kind of sense).

What about physical diseases? For example, they could try to answer the same question - how does dwarfism fit in to the evolutionary tale? What benefits does it have to be a dwarf?

You know, there doesn’t need to be an evolutionary upside to depression. As long as it hasn’t been enough of an evolutionary hindrance, there’s no reason for it to have been selected against.

I do not suffer from clinical depression. Every once in a while, though, I do get depressed for a few days at a stretch, generally for no discernable reason. When this happens, the world goes flat and gray, I don’t feel like doing anything, including getting up, and I think of what a great release death would be.

Based on this, I would have to say that anyone who suggests that there could be any possible benefit attached to depression is delusional. Moreover, anyone who uses the terms “depression” and “sadness” in such a way as to suggest that the two might be synonymous, probably has no clue what he’s talking about. Sadness, I believe, can be quite therapeutic; in some forms it is even pleasurable. There is nothing either therapeutic or pleasurable about depression; it is a state of just trying to drag your mind through the day in the hope that the next one will be better.

The problem is depression is the symptom, not the problem. After having generalized anxiety for a while, or have negative beliefs about yourself, all cause depression. I wish I never had it.

I think its crap.

Is a predisposition to want to sit on the couch and balloon up to 350 lbs. on cheesy poofs and develop type-II diabetes evolutionarily advantageous? Those basic urges (eating calorie-dense foods whenever possible and conserving energy) might be evolutionarily appropriate, but diabetes sure as hell isn’t.

Similarly, self-criticism and avoiding potentially futile behavior might be useful personality traits, but that doesn’t prove being depressed is a good idea.

Like all evolutionary psychology, there’s no real means of proving this one way or the other, so it’s bound to become fairly worthless pseudo-scientific blather perfectly suited to the NY Times Magazine.