The Benefits of Depression

hmarcia's picture


The Benefits of Depression

I recently read an article that proposed that practically everything we do 
and feel comes from evolution; in other words, we act the way we act
because it contributes to our abilities to produce offspring.  With this
hypothesis in mind, I decided to test it with a very common mental
condition: depression.  When I think about depression, words such as sad
and blue come to mind, but depression obviously entails more than just the
normal case of the “blues”.  Depression is defined as; “a condition of
general emotional dejection and withdrawal, and or sadness greater and
more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason” (1).  It is a
mental condition that affects approximately 20.9 million adults in the
United States each year, and those with depression often suffer
consequences that negatively affect their lives, but why does depression
exist (2)?  What is the biological evolutionary reasoning behind
depression?  Society often stigmatizes those that experience depression by
labeling them as “sick”, but is it necessarily a sickness?  We will need
to look at the chemical and biological reactions in that occur in the
brain, at evolutionary theories about depression to explain the reasons
for the condition, and to figure out if it is indeed a benefit to
        The biological and chemical factor is often cited as an important factor
in the development of depression.  The biological factors that aid the
development of depression involve chemicals in the neurons in our brains.
 Chemicals called neurotransmitters, which function as messengers between
the nerve cells, are considered to be the culprits in depression (3). 
There is a strong coloration between the three main monoamine
neurotransmitters in the brain (dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin)
and  depression (4).  Research concludes that symptoms of depressions
depend on the levels of the three monoamine neurotransmitters in the
brain; the lower the level of the three monoamine neurotransmitters and
the more likely it is to exhibit symptoms of depression (4).  From these
observations, two very important theories explaining the origins of
depression came about.
The first theory, “catecholamine theory”, emerged in the 1960 and proposes
that depression stems from a lack of norepinephrine in some brain circuits
(3).  A large number of studies support this hypothesis, but these studies
also showed that changes in the levels of norepinephrine did not cause
depression in everyone.  From this hypothesis, the second theory emerged
(3).  The “permissive hypothesis” proposes that the reduction of
serotonins in the brain leads to reductions in the levels of
norepinephrine, and the low levels of norepinephrine leads to the symptoms
of depression (3).  Although there are three neurotransmitters, the
“permissive hypothesis” makes serotonin the most important
neurotransmitter in the brain (3).  It is for this reason that most
anti-depressants medications contain high levels of serotonin in an effort
to artificially increase the levels of serotonin in the depressant’s
brain.  Understanding the biological factors that cause depression makes
understanding the evolutionary reasons for depression clearer.
The phrase “the survival of the fittest” highlights Darwin’s theory of
evolution, but where does depression fit in with this idea of “the
survival of the fittest”?  Do the “fittest” experience bouts of
depression?   In the last couple of years, scientists have concluded that
despite the costs of depression, there does exist real benefits.  A recent
study proposes the idea that those benefits can be found in the analytical
thinking processes of those depressed.  Isolation and the inability to
enjoy daily activities are common symptoms of depression, and the study
found that depressed individuals often think intensely about their
problems (5).  With both of these combined, you have a person who is only
focused on the problems that they currently have.  By becoming depressed,
the mind forces the individual to pay attention to major problems that
might possibly endanger the life of the depressed person and need urgent
attention.  By being depressed, the person isolates himself from anything
that might possibly distract him from thinking about his problems.
Other studies have concluded that those depressed often develop strong
analytical thinking skills.  For example, those depressed will often dwell
on a very complex problem, break it into smaller components, and further
consider those smaller components (5).  By focusing on the smaller
components of the big problem, the depressed person is able to better
analyze the problem.  All of this analyzing requires uninterrupted
thinking and leads to the characteristics that we might view as negative. 
For example, the loss of appetite, although considered a negative symptom
of depression, is in fact a good one because chewing might in fact
interfere with the brain’s ability to think (5).  Studies have also shown
that people suffering depression are better at resolving social dilemmas
because by being able to better analyze, they are able to understand the
costs and benefits of the different options that they might take in the
social dilemma (5).  There are positive reasons for suffering depression,
and in terms of evolution it is a very positive one.
   Society might still stigmatize those suffering from depression as
“sick”, but newer research and studies conclude that depression is not
necessarily some sort of sickness.  More and more, it appears to be a
sort of process that we all need to go through at some point in our
lives in order to develop a clearly understanding of our problems. 
Depression serves as a tool for our mind to force us to deal with
problems we perhaps do not really want to.  It appears that our minds
look out for our better interest by forcing us to become depressed when
there are major problems.  No one is able to decide when they will be
depressed and when not be depressed.  If this is the case, then want
agents are at play besides the chemicals, the environment that might be
causing the problems, or us?  What is sparking that depression?  Is our
subconscious looking out for our interests by causing depression when
it deems necessary?  These questions remain unanswered for now but all
current findings seem to suggest that with proper help, most will
emerge from depression better than before.




Paul Grobstein's picture

depression as an evolutionary adaptation?

Very intriguing set of issues, well worth thinking more about.  Is there actually evidence that "most will emerge from depression better than before"?  In what ways?  If one follows this line of argument, ought one to treat depression pharmacologically or not?  For more on these issues, see Exploring depression

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