- The prevalence of depression — 20-30% of the population — invites the question as to whether it has a beneficial evolutionary effect.
- Researchers have claimed that one benefit to depression could be that it helps an individual take a more analytical approach to their problem.
- Some researchers are reluctant to advocate for medication to treat depression because for the majority of people, depression is situational.
There has been a growing controversy both about the effectiveness of anti-depressants—that half the folks taking placebos do just as well—as well as concern about biological effects, such as increasing the risk of relapse, brain neuron deterioration, bone mineral loss, etc.
A different spin in the controversy comes from an evolutionary psychology perspective, and leading the charge of this view are two researchers, Paul Andrews, a clinical psychologist, and Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist. Their notion is that maybe there is something useful about depression after all.
What prompts their questioning is the prevalence of depression—20-30% of the population compared to single digits for other mental illnesses. Why is this so different? They make the analogy to fevers, where the fever process is the body’s way of dealing with an infection, and the use of drugs to kill the fever actually weakens the body’s homeostatic functioning. Maybe depression too has some beneficial effect after all. When they look at the biological impact of depression, they discover some interesting ideas:
Depression leads to more analytical thinking.
What they found is that the way we think about problems actually changes with depression. We are able to break down complex problems into smaller components. Depressed folks actually do better on certain tests than those who are not. We also do a better job solving social problems (think spouse having an affair) when depressed.
Depression makes us more focused.
The ruminations—the circling around the same thoughts with seemingly little control—is considered one of the negative symptoms of depression and what medications try to target. But, say Andrews and Thompson, ruminations, like fevers, may be good. There is only so much we can actually hold in our minds at any one time. Depression helps keep us from being distracted by other issues and instead pushes the most important to the front burner. So we think, think, think, analyze, analyze, until we can put what is most bothering us to rest. Avoid the ruminations through drugs or alcohol, and they in fact last longer.
Physical symptoms keep us on target.
The desire to be alone, the decrease in libido, the lack of energy, and sleeplessness actually reinforce the focus. Our bodies are actually joining forces with our minds to keep us moving forward in dealing with our problems, keeping us from being lured away by additional distractions.
The takeaway for Andrews and Thompson is that they are reluctant to immediately try and kill symptoms with medication. While a small percentage of the population is struggling with a biologically rooted disorder, for a majority of us, our depression is most often situational—there is something we need to pay attention to and fix in our lives and relationships.
So, they say, look at what there is to fix. Doing therapy to talk through your thoughts, or doing expressive writing that helps work with ruminations speeds up the recovery process. Rather than mentally or pharmaceutically running away from problems, slow down and give yourself the time to sort it out.
Food for thought. Give it a think.
Andrews, P. & Thompson, J.A. (2009). The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaption for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116 (3), 620-654.