Could depression serve a purpose we hadn’t thought of? Something simple, like thinking?
That’s the theory presented by Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. in a recent article in Scientific American.
The scientists point to a couple of points of evidence to support their theory. One, they say, ruminations help people figure out their complex problems, breaking them down into smaller, more digestible components. Such an exercise, they argue, makes a depressed person more able to solve the problems that made them depressed in the first place:
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.
The flip side of the coin not examined by the scientists, however, is obvious — ruminations can also be very nonproductive, too. It’s fine to describe how when one is an analytical frame of mind, one can tackle even highly complex problems. But math isn’t life, and a person who suffers from depression may often ruminate with no clear answers forthcoming. Rumination + lack of energy still = no behavior change.
But thinking about things from a different perspective is the basis of some modern psychotherapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). So perhaps there’s something to this line of thought. Indeed, the researchers then suggest that many of the so-called symptoms of depression might just be the body’s evolutionary way of dealing with this need to stay focused on analyzing and solving the problem that caused the depression in the first place:
Many other symptoms of depression make sense in light of the idea that analysis must be uninterrupted. The desire for social isolation, for instance, helps the depressed person avoid situations that would require thinking about other things. Similarly, the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities prevents the depressed person from engaging in activities that could distract him or her from the problem. Even the loss of appetite often seen in depression could be viewed as promoting analysis because chewing and other oral activity interferes with the brain’s ability to process information.
All of which is very logical and makes sense, if ruminating alone usually helped most people resolve their serious depression on their own. But most people don’t. In fact, most people with depression simply suffer for years without treatment or help for it because they either feel it’s not “serious” enough to seek out help, or they’re afraid (or too ashamed) to get help for it. All those people, and all that time — you’d think we’d be seeing much higher cure rates simply by people thinking their way out of the problem.
Something unmentioned by the scientists also is worth noting — many people can’t trace their depression back to a specific concern, problem, or life event. For many people, depression doesn’t strike in some sort of logical fashion — it occurs out of the blue, for no reason at all. All the thinking or ruminating in the world isn’t going to help someone solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
For most people, ruminating about things doesn’t really seem to help their depression.
So while it’s an elegant theory on the face of it, I’m not sure how well it stands up against the reality of most people’s lives and the depression they face. If depression was simply nature’s way of saying, “Hey, wake up and start thinking about this problem,” I don’t understand why most people don’t cure themselves within a short amount of time. After all, if nature is giving us all of these symptoms to help us think, surely it has provided us with the natural innate reasoning and analytic skills to actually solve the problem, no?
Well, no. It hasn’t. And that’s the reason I don’t think this is a theory that makes much sense to anyone who’s ever actually dealt with depression for months or years on end.
Read the full article: Depression’s Evolutionary Roots