The cognitive benefits of sadness

Paul Raven @ 11-05-2011

Jonah Lehrer at Wired has been looking into recent research into depression, and wondering whether it isn’t in fact a sort of evolutionary advantage.

The study itself was simple: A large group of subjects ranging from healthy to clinically depressed played a decision-making task on a computer. Their goal of the task was to hire the best applicant in a simulated job search. Each applicant was assigned a monetary value – some were much better than others – and presented in random order to the subjects.

While this task might seem somewhat arbitrary, the scientists note that it closely resembles a common everyday dilemma. It doesn’t matter if we’re shopping for clothes or going on dates — it’s often unclear when we’ve explored enough options, when we should stop searching and just make a damn decision. Furthermore, this task was designed so that it has a known optimal strategy, with the best decision-makers sifting through a certain number of alternatives.

Here’s where things get interesting: depressed patients approximated the optimal strategy much more closely than non-depressed participants did. The main problem with healthy subjects is that they proved lazy, unwilling to search through enough applicants. Those with depression, on the other hand, were much more willing to keep on considering alternatives, which is why they performed far better on the task. While this study comes with many caveats, it remains an interesting demonstration that depression, at least in specific situations, seems to enhance our analytical skills, making us better at focusing on social dilemmas.

It’s a very seductive idea for anyone who has ever experienced clinical depression (which I have and still do), but a decade of hanging around on the internet has made me leery of what I think of as “wish-fulfilment science” – these are bits of science journalism, usually psychological diagnoses, that make you feel that your particular affliction actually makes you a superior snowflake rather than simply a special one.

(For an extreme version of such, see Gary Westfahl’s earnest but extraordinarily ill-advised Aspergers confessional at Locus Online; “fans are Slans”, indeed. It’s one thing to “own” your afflictions, but very much another to claim they put you in the evolutionary vanguard.)

But as Lehrer points out, the prevalence of depression suggests there must be some evolutionary benefit to it, and my own experiences of rumination match up strongly with what he’s discussing, with respect to obsessing over social dilemmas and so forth. Does that make depressed people somehow “better” than everyone else? I don’t think so; the price is pretty high, and the insights gained into oneself and the world aren’t necessarily the sort of insights that make it any easier to sleep at night. (Quite the opposite, in fact.)

That said, I’ve always refused pharmacological treatments for it… partly because I’ve seen what antidepressants have done to people I’ve known for years (I don’t see chronic anxiety, character change and mood swings as a “cure”, I’m afraid), but mostly because, as Tennessee Williams put it, I worry that killing my demons might kill my angels as well.

Our cancerous common ancestor?

Paul Raven @ 18-03-2011

Peter Watts, still recovering from a close brush with mortality in the form of a flesh-eating virus (pictures NSFL – Not Safe For Lunch), blogs an interesting new scientific paper that suggests that we are all cancer. Take it away, Mister Watts:

I don’t mean this proximally. I mean it in the sense that all birds are dinosaurs — because according to Davies & Lineweaver, cancer (more precisely, “tumor-like neoplasms”) is the common ancestor of all animal life. Every malignant lump on your breast, every metastatic colony proliferating through your marrow, is just a rebooted revisitation of your grandmother a million times removed.

The basic idea’s petty straightforward. Natural selection reaches into every corner of the biosphere, you see; and a billion years ago that meant every cell for itself because unicellular life was the only game in town. A mere six hundred million years back, though, all that had changed. Metazoans were everywhere — cells grouped into colonies with specialized subsystems called tissues and organs —and somehow, within those colonies, the whole beat-the-competition thing had fallen out of favor. Cells worked together, now; hell, red blood cells even gave up their nuclei for the good of the organism, which really puts the kibosh on any future solo career. I think it had something to do with inclusive fitness.

In between, presumably, there was something halfway between Cuba and the US, some intermediate form between everyone for themselves and everyone for the state. Some kind of loose affiliation of cells which valued their individual freedom, but were not above at least some level of cooperation. Modern-day sponges might be a pretty good example: some cellular specialization, a bit of the ol’ helping hand between cells, but nothing so altruistic as an actual tissue. Call it “Metazoa 1.0″. Davies and Lineweaver do.

According to D&L, that old 1.0 operating system is still sleeping down there in our genetic code; it’s just been turned off by the more recent regulatory genes of Metazoa 2.0. It hasn’t been eradicated outright, because a lot of those ancient genes are still useful (“…the genes responsible for the cellular cooperation necessary for multicellularity are also the genes that malfunction in cancer cells.”) It’s just been — tamed, is as good a word as any. Tamed, and deactivated.

Except when something happens to one of those bits of regulatory code that keep it comatose. When some base pair flips this way instead of that, Metazoa 1.0 wakes up, its ancestral toolkit intact, ready to party like it’s One Billion Years B.P.

Watts, trained scientists that he is, is at pains to point out that Davies & Lineweaver are merely looking at old data with a new interpretation, and that they’ve put forward a theory rather than a statement of fact… and yeah, I know most of you who read here already know the difference, but this is the internet, after all. But…

… the great thing about being a science fiction writer is that I don’t really have to wait if I don’t want to. Here is an idea, peer-reviewed and legitimately published, thrown into discourse: We are all descended from Cancer. We are borne of the Holy Tumor. Isn’t that a thought. Doesn’t that get your mind going: to the imagination of ancient habitats, somewhere on this planet or within it. To isolated refugia, cut off from the rest of the world when stromatolites were still young, where 2.0 never happened and the cancerous Metazoan prototype was free to chart its own evolutionary course through a billion years.

I find these sorts of insights into the genesis of story ideas fascinating (as I do the science at the root of them). Though I’m kinda surprised that a guy who was nearly killed off by some incredibly virulent and weird disease a few weeks back (on the tail of having narrowly avoided becoming an anomalous Canadian blip in the 2010 immigration law incarceration statistics of the United States) needs to read biology papers to find potentially horrifying things to write about…

What could be worse than human extinction?

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

From a philosophical perspective, human extinction is just about the worst thing we can imagine… and it’s a fairly recent fear, too, with our conception of existential risk kick-started by the threat of mutually assured destruction. But what about a slow slide back into an animal state from our current civilisational peak? An evolutionary regression triggered by the impoverishment of the environment we mastered momentarily? [via BigThink]

Civilization obscures our similarity to other animals. We tend to hold ourselves to different standards because we see ourselves as above nature.  Many people find the slaughter of food animals objectionable. Yet no one is advocating intervention to save the gazelles from the lions or the rabbits from the foxes. Is the suffering of animals in the wild less important? Should we venture out in search of prey animals to rescue from their predators, and sick or injured animals in need of medical care? No, it would seem. It’s okay when nature imposes suffering on animals, but not when we do it. Similarly, it’s not okay when we are the subjects of nature’s cruelty.

Civilization has bestowed our species with a distorted self-image. Many people seem to have the impression that we operate independently of nature. We are fortunate that we’ve been able to act as though we are independent for as long as we have. If we don’t adjust our way of living so that it becomes sustainable, however, nature will eventually do this for us.

The worst case scenario is not that humans will become extinct, but that we will come to experience the cruel will of nature as other animals do. We can’t rule out the possibility that we will become more similar to our primate cousins in intelligence, behavior, and quality of life. We may be enjoying the peak of human intelligence, morality, and technological advancement.

On the face of it, this is just another finger-waggy “if we don’t sort things out soon… ” warning, but I think you can detach the results from the cause – there are any number of reasons we might find civilisation as we know it receding into the patchwork memories of the past. Indeed, given our tendency to prattle on about “the good old days”, you could probably convince a lot of people it was already happening…

But in recent years that nostalgic view of the-past-as-idyll has become more and more of an irritant to me. Despite the very real problems facing human beings as individuals and as a species, I think conditions and opportunities for the average person have been improving steadily for a long time (even though those improvements, like William Gibson’s future, are – sadly – not evenly distributed). This is perhaps the same myopia that makes us see the decline of the Western economies as a global recession: because things aren’t quite as easy for us in particular as they were a few decades back, then we’re obviously bound for hell in a handbasket, AMIRITES?

Well, I’m not so sure; I think we have it in us a species to survive, prosper and spread beyond the gravity well. But to achieve that, I suspect we’ll need to start thinking of ourselves as a species rather than as individual nations… which may turn out to be the greatest challenge we’ve ever come up against, rooted as it is in the very evolutionary processes that made us what we are.

Still – it’s worth a shot, wouldn’t you say? 🙂

A new thesis of genre

Paul Raven @ 20-10-2010

Via Jim Van Pelt, here’s an essay from Daniel Abraham wherein he ponders the nature of fiction genres, those flexible, permeable and indistinct categories that we all recognise when we see them… even though we all see them in slightly (or sometimes not-so-slightly) different places. Abraham points out right at the start that his train of thought here is a work in progress, but don’t let that put you off following his reasoning through.

However, I’ll cut to the chase and quote his closing thesis, which chimes strongly with my own thoughts on the short-term fate of science fiction:

If genre fiction is the natural coalescence of similar literary projects in conversation and reaction to one another centered on issues of social anxiety and insecurity, science fiction will see an increasingly esoteric rigorous hard sf following the path of poetry and modern jazz music by appealing to a narrower and narrower audience who are sophisticated in its reading, a swan-song resurgence of nostalgic science fiction recapturing and commenting on the work of the 7os that will die out entirely within a generation, and continued growth in the (oh hell, let’s coin it) Bacigalupean dystopias addressing environmental and political issues.

Individual works will almost certainly buck the trend, but as genre isn’t an individual work but a relationship between them, the body of literature should trend that way.

I think we can already see this happening, to be honest. And while I lack the spare time to sit down and thrash it out into something coherent, I think there’s probably a complementary narrative one can build around the fantasy and horror genres, too: a briefly-booming-then-shrinking hard-core market for inherently nostalgic forms, and a growth market for the new evolutions which graft the traditional tropes onto contemporary issues.

Your thoughts?

Telling stories: the evolution of fiction

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2010

Why do we humans have such an obsession with making up, telling and listening to stories? A chap called Brian Boyd, writing at Axess Magazine, attempts to piece together the reasons that we have evolved – and maintained – this unique form of social behaviour [via BigThink]:

Fiction takes minds that first evolved to deal with the here and now away from the here and now. Ape minds grew in order to deal with complex social relations, and human minds developed still further as we became ultrasocial. Our minds are most finely tuned for understanding agents, that is, any creatures who can act: animal, human, and by extension, monsters, gods and spirits.

In ancient environments, the agents we evolved to track were other animals as well as people, and even in modern urban environments children have a compulsive desire to learn the names of animals and to play with or make up or listen to stories about animals. Our minds want to and easily can track and differentiate agents, since other agents, human or not, offer the most complex, volatile and high-stake information we regularly encounter. We carry that motivation and capacity into pretend play and story.


As psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley remarks, fiction works as a social simulator, allowing us to stretch our scope beyond the actual to the possible or the impossible. We need not be confined to the given, but can turn actuality around within the much larger space of possibility to explain how things are or to see how they could have been or might be. By building on our sociality, pretend play and fiction extend our imaginations, taking us from the here and now along tracks we can easily follow even offline because they are the fresh tracks of agents.

So next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time reading a book, you know what to tell ’em. 😉

At the risk of playing the “OMG EssEff is Special!” card, might science fiction be considered a further evolution (or maybe just a fork) of that basic storytelling impulse – not so much a refinement, but a specific extension of its utility suited to the changing needs of human societies? Is that, perhaps, why it only really arrived on the scene at a point in our social history when the idea of tomorrow’s world differing to today’s in radical ways was starting to become commonplace*?

[ * For the purpose of this argument, I’m pegging the dawn of sf to coincide roughly with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; many critics – not least the good Professor Adam Roberts, late of this parish and others – have argued that the attitudes and imaginative leaps that characterise sf can be found in earlier texts, but that’s a debate to be had when there’s time, beer and barstools to spare. And of course, we’ll need to thrash out a definition of sf that we can all agree on before we start… ]

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