By Andrew Nusca
Posting in Design
Depression in humans is not a disorder, but a mental adaption that has cognitive advantages, according to two scientists. The science behind the discovery might surprise you.
Summarizing research published in Psychological Review, Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. write in Scientific American that depression has very real advantages, despite very real costs.
The scientists argue that research in the U.S. and other nations estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of people have met criteria for major depression sometime in their lives, despite the fact that the brain, promoting survival and reproduction via evolution, should have left our brains resistant to such high rates of malfunction -- the way it has to mental disorders, which are fairly rare.
Andrews and Thomson back their claim with science:
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.
That is to say that despite destructive attributes -- lack of concentration, social isolation, lethargy, an inability to enjoy pleasure, and the chance of "severe, lengthy, and even life-threatening bouts of depression" -- depression can actually be useful.
Why? The scientists claim depressed people often think intensely and analytically (they're called "ruminations") about their problems, dwelling on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components and considering them methodically, one at a time.
Feeling depressed in the face of a complex problem motivates you to actually solve it, the scientists write.
Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted. In a region of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), neurons must fire continuously for people to avoid being distracted. But this is very energetically demanding for VLPFC neurons, just as a car’s engine eats up fuel when going up a mountain road. Moreover, continuous firing can cause neurons to break down, just as the car’s engine is more likely to break down when stressed. Studies of depression in rats show that the 5HT1A receptor is involved in supplying neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down. These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage, which may explain why the 5HT1A receptor is so evolutionarily important.
In light of that "uninterrupted" mindset, depression makes a lot of sense, the scientists insist: social isolation, the inability to feel pleasure from other activities and loss of appetite all bolster the case that the brain needs to be singularly focused to achieve its goal.
What's more, studies have found that people in depressed states are better at solving social dilemmas -- the kind of problems difficult enough to require analysis, they write.
Consider a woman with young children who discovers her husband is having an affair. Is the wife’s best strategy to ignore it, or force him to choose between her and the other woman, and risk abandonment? Laboratory experiments indicate that depressed people are better at solving social dilemmas by better analysis of the costs and benefits of the different options that they might take.
Or, in other words: depression is nature's way of telling you that your mind is intent on solving a complex social problem with which you are faced.
A disorder, hardly. A refined reaction, indeed.
Aug 31, 2009
I come from a long line of depressed and miserable people. They all eventually turned to alcohol and/or illegal drugs. They sometimes drank themselves to death, one walked into the path of a truck and one used a gun to escape the pain. Going back to 1989 there have been three of us the others called the white sheep of the family. Go to church, go to work, take care of our families. No booze, pills, affairs, jail time. In spite of a nasty childhood, a nasty marriage that ended when the baby would not stop crying at day 10 and the discovery at 14 months that said child had autism. . . you might think I would be depressed. But no, I keep on keepin' on and bury the ones who can't cope. I do feel badly for them when I think about it but mostly I am grateful to have escaped what seems to me to be the total self absorption of these people. I can excuse their behavior as a disease but if this is somebodies idea of how to problem solve; why does it start with problem behavior?
Without reading your whole article I can already say amen to the starting paragraph as well as the title. I have had problems with depression all of my life but was not until I married my present wife that I really came terms to the problems and also the benefits, although slower to ascertain this. The benefits are rarely seen by many others in your life and this depressed state makes it difficult to explain to others the benefits ,which those affected can readily see, in the slow progress which is usually more accurate in conclusions. I have always had an exceptional recollection but did not understand the real benefits of this nor how to progress at the rate that should be allowed a person with this mental rarity. Don't push, have patience, show love and respect and the answer will come. These statements come from a years worth of medications which in one way made me aggressive, a read-a-holic, and thought,, which in most cases was correct due to my recollection, I was an expert on most things just because I could remember examples of most from reading, listening or watching examples. I've learned that things are nor always as they appear at first, second, third or sometimes fourth or more glance or ascertation of another persons performance. Even as I write these words they don't seem to add justice to the thoughts that I have experienced through this last year of treatment. some times you (I) just want to say "no! That's not the problem or the solution I need!, but can't or don't know the words or how to explain.. I've backed myself off of most medications to a large part and and am seeing a nutritionist, which will be most effective but not covered by insurance. Why do doctors only prescribe pills that help the most obvious problems but don't look at the many problems that are going to be caused by depletions which these medications bring about in out bodies. These depletions may also cause more problems leading to becomming totally 'lost in the crowd' or even in out own heads???
Hi there. Main stream medicine has left untouched a vital component of depression: the body. They usually limit their action to cover the only effects by giving almost everybody the poison they call anti depressants. These anti depressants make you dependant on big pharma industry and on the doctor himself. Many times, they don?t bother to check if you are covering the minimum responsibilities you have to keep your body healthy because most of the time they also are irresponsible with they our way of living. You need a healthy body before you are cured of any depression, but they forget or don?t care about it. You need to provide a healthy diet, free of toxics and processed foods, have a rested mind after doing some kind of exercise that clears your mind everyday, sleep 8 hour every night. You have to take the sun everyday; our body is made to be out on the sun to produce vitamin D, necessary for many processes in the body. The rest will come after that, not before. You can read more at http://www.omega-3-fish-oil-wonders.com/omega-3-for-depression.html My best wishes. Alfredo E.
Is it not true, though, that the continued firing of neurons means that a person is learning and that it is, in fact, how a person learns? People lose neurons by not using them, not by using them too often. Besides, human brains and rat brains are incredibly different and a 99% similarity is enough of a genetic difference to make the difference between humans and chimpanzees. Also, with the development of our modern technology, humans have stopped evolving in a lot of ways since anyone and everyone can reproduce (and let's not forget that who does and does not reproduce is essential to evolution). Therefore, a condition that could have been phased out without modern technology is now prevalent. Not only that, but with the technology comes a plethora of chemicals that have been introduced into our bodies that had never been there before. Could this not be a cause of depression, since there are no real recorded cases of depression before modern times, rather than simply a way to solve a social problem? Since it seems that all these studies have been done on rats, I would be interested to know the behavioral patterns of the "depressed" rats. One of the definitions of depression is a certain kind of behavior in a human. Did the rats behave in that way or was this based purely on the chemical brain studies? In light of all this, it seems like this research may not be all that substantiated and is rather just jumping to big conclusions with minimal work. I suggest the scientist do a study of humans brains before, during, and after a depressed state (which, on that note, does not just last a short period when someone is trying to figure something out, but for years and years and for no reason at all).