Does depression have an upside? Is there some sort of evolutionary advantage for a person to become depressed, for instance, to re-evaluate their lives or perhaps a choice they made that led to their current depression?
Most people who are depressed certainly wouldn’t think so. (I don’t either.)
But it doesn’t stop evolutionary psychologists and other researchers from positing that there may indeed be some sort of evolutionary reason for it.
Richard Friedman, MD, writing in the New York Times today, explores the issue.
He starts with a case study to illustrate the argument:
Consider a patient I saw not long ago, a 30-year-old woman whose husband had had an affair and left her. Within several weeks, she became despondent and socially isolated. She developed insomnia and started to ruminate constantly about what she might have done wrong.
An evolutionary psychologist might posit that my patient’s response has a certain logic. After all, she broke off her normal routine, isolated herself and tried to understand her abandonment and plan for the future. You might see a survival advantage in the ability of depressed people like her to rigidly and obsessively fix their attention on one problem, tuning out just about everything and everyone else around them.
Certain studies might seem to support this perspective. Paul W. Andrews, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, reported that normal subjects get sadder while trying to solve a demanding spatial pattern recognition test, suggesting that something about sadness might improve analytical reasoning.
Other researchers have found that sad subjects were better judges of deception than happy ones. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that perhaps the rumination of people who have depression is an adaptive strategy to solve a painful problem.
But research on this issue is nearly always done on college students, and not even depressed ones at that. That certainly limits the generalizeability of their results, and doesn’t necessarily translate into a better understanding of depression as experienced by people who are actually clinically depressed.
It’s a conclusion Dr. Friedman eventually comes to as well. Even if there’s some “point” to depression, it no longer seems to serve the evolutionary advantage it might have once did.
Regardless of its evolutionary purpose, depression remains a serious but eminently treatable mental disorder. Our minds try to justify life problems in a million different ways. However, none of it helps for us to actually treat the problem in the here and now of people’s personal lives.
Read the full article: Depression Defies Rush to Find Evolutionary Upside
PS – One annoying and very unprofessional trait of some people is to refer to people who have a disorder as that disorder. Throughout this article, Dr. Friedman refers to people with depression as “depressives,” and even quotes other professionals in the article using the same terminology.
People are not the sum of their medical condition. It’s dismissive and degrading to refer to people with mental disorders as though they were one and the same as their disorder, just because some disorders’ names make it easy to do so (e.g., easy to do for people with depression or schizophrenia, harder to do so for people ADHD or bipolar disorder).
Let’s put an end to this practice in mainstream journalism, okay?