Thinking About the Hard Stuff

This article in Scientific American is the great:

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.

One reason to suspect that depression is an adaptation, not a malfunction, comes from research into a molecule in the brain known as the 5HT1A receptor. The 5HT1A receptor binds to serotonin, another brain molecule that is highly implicated in depression and is the target of most current antidepressant medications. Rodents lacking this receptor show fewer depressive symptoms in response to stress, which suggests that it is somehow involved in promoting depression. (Pharmaceutical companies, in fact, are designing the next generation of antidepressant medications to target this receptor.) When scientists have compared the composition of the functional part rat 5HT1A receptor to that of humans, it is 99 percent similar, which suggests that it is so important that natural selection has preserved it. The ability to “turn on” depression would seem to be important, then, not an accident.

It goes on to conclude that getting depressed is a good way to spend time thinking about difficult things:

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.

There you go – it was time well spent… at least it would be  if i could remember actually reaching any meaningful conclusions!

Yes, of course i’m being glib and lighthearted. Depression is a serious problem for many people. However, it’s interesting to be able to see it in evolutionary terms.


3 thoughts on “Thinking About the Hard Stuff

  1. Isn’t the point of a depression that it does not lead to any results? If you just spend a week thinking analytically about something, I wouldn’t nescessarily call it a depression. It’s only when you think about the same stuff over years, just circling a limited number of thoughts, that it becomes a depression.

    • According to the article, the point of depression is to allow you to focus on problems that socially / personally important to you.

      It seems right to me that there are types / classes of depression, some of which do fit this explanation, and some which don’t. In the case where a person is functioning normally for a long period of time, and then has a bout / episode of depression, this seems like a reasonable way of understanding why it might be a good course of action for the brain to evolve.

  2. Important decisions reached via depression:
    – What pizza topping to get.
    – To turn the one hour of the Food Channel into a day-long viewing session.
    – To rotate between “Master of Puppets” and the black album.
    – That the sheets need to be washed, but not today.

Wise words...

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