Depression may be evolution’s way of telling us to think things over

hello“Mental disorders should generally be rare,” state researchers Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. ” — why isn’t depression?” It doesn’t seem to be a function of aging and culture, yet prescription drugs for it help keep pharmaceutical companies afloat.

There is another possibility: that, in most instances, depression should not be thought of as a disorder at all. 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….

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.

But is there any evidence that depression is useful in analyzing complex problems? For one thing, if depressive rumination were harmful, as most clinicians and researchers assume, then bouts of depression should be slower to resolve when people are given interventions that encourage rumination, such as having them write about their strongest thoughts and feelings. However, the opposite appears to be true. Several studies have found that expressive writing promotes quicker resolution of depression, and they suggest that this is because depressed people gain insight into their problems.

The idea that depression–which the authors acknowledge is painful and can be serious–can have a purpose is a new idea to me.

I’m going to go lie in a dark room and think about it.

[Image: Somebody Needs a Hug by Robyn Gallagher]

2 thoughts on “Depression may be evolution’s way of telling us to think things over”

  1. I’ve often thought that SAD (Seasonally Affected Disorder) might be a way of keeping people inside during the winter so they don’t waste calories when the food supply is likely to be lowest. I have no evidence to back that up, it just sounds good to me on the surface.

  2. I think this line of research is great, even though it doesn’t quite jibe with my own (anecdotal?) experience. Depression never made me FEEl any smarter, that’s for sure.

    Frigid Pennsylvania winters always made me feel like I *was* hibernating, so you may be on to something. : )

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