The Upside of Depression

I've got an article on the upside of depression in the latest New York Times Magazine. If you'd like to learn more about this controversial theory, I'd suggest reading the original paper, "The Bright Side of Being Blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems," by Paul Andrews and Andy Thomson. Here's my lede:

The Victorians had many names for depression, and Charles Darwin used them all. There were his "fits" brought on by "excitements," "flurries" leading to an "uncomfortable palpitation of the heart" and "air fatigues" that triggered his "head symptoms." In one particularly pitiful letter, written to a specialist in "psychological medicine," he confessed to "extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence" and "hysterical crying" whenever Emma, his devoted wife, left him alone.

While there has been endless speculation about Darwin's mysterious ailment -- his symptoms have been attributed to everything from lactose intolerance to Chagas disease -- Darwin himself was most troubled by his recurring mental problems. His depression left him "not able to do anything one day out of three," choking on his "bitter mortification." He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. "The 'race is for the strong,' " Darwin wrote. "I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science."

Darwin, of course, was wrong; his recurring fits didn't prevent him from succeeding in science. Instead, the pain may actually have accelerated the pace of his research, allowing him to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work. His letters are filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods. "Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me," Darwin wrote and later remarked that it was his "sole enjoyment in life."

For Darwin, depression was a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems. In his autobiography, he speculated on the purpose of such misery; his evolutionary theory was shadowed by his own life story. "Pain or suffering of any kind," he wrote, "if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet it is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil." And so sorrow was explained away, because pleasure was not enough. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it "leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial." The darkness was a kind of light.

The mystery of depression is not that it exists -- the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare -- schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population -- depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a "gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk." Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.

The persistence of this affliction -- and the fact that it seemed to be heritable -- posed a serious challenge to Darwin's new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction -- it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide -- to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we've now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection -- increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive -- depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer -- we suffer terribly -- but we don't suffer in vain.

More like this

This leads me to wonder: what of the depression brought on by long stretches terrible life circumstances? The kind that rewire the brain in such a manner that recovery is a long, difficult, and an all-too-often endless road?

Do they make any distinction between (to simplify) plain ol' regular heritable depression, and that which goes much deeper?

I'm at work, so I don't have time to read the linked page. :(

Depression doesn't have to be seen as fulfilling a purpose just because it creates within us a purpose for dealing with it to our best advantage. More likely it's the result of failure to reach the goals we had expected or hoped to meet for a different purpose.

did you happen to read Head Case (can psychiatry be a science?) in the March 1st issue of the New Yorker? any thoughts?

Great article! I'm a psychology and evolutionary biology geek and this is a nice synthesis of the two with fun cross-references to other stuff I've read. Your sophomore book is on my wishlist after I finish "Nudge!"

This would shift the problem to a study of what happens when the mind locks unto a problem it cannot solve. And the more important question, how do we treat that?

I believe that field of study was once called philosophy.

By TwelveTwo (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

Would have been nice to have had a few depressives underwriting financial derivatives and real estate over the past few years.

Well, if you believe in group selection of behavioral traits (I'm on the fence about it, for what it's worth), a "positive" role for depression becomes quite clear - if a member of the group considers themself to be a "failure" they slow their eating and mating and possibly outright kill themselves, freeing up resources for the "successes".

Apparently Nietzsche credited his frequent migraines with making him so efficient at his work (and with making his work so aphoristic). He worked fast between migraines because he knew he wouldn't have much time before the next one started.

By Undergrad (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

Whilst I appreciate the perspective that depression can provide a degree of personal or existential insight in some cases, the thesis as presented here is absolute rot. As you say, the common cold is common, so is Asthma (to pick up something that is has reasonable heredity). Why expect to see uniformly low prevalence of mental illnesses? Suicide is maladaptive. Low sex-drive is maladaptive. Depression is existentially horrible but also clearly biologically maladaptive. Look at the learned helplessness model in rats. The rats give up... they are ill suited to dealing with predators, procreation and other aspects of survival. Does this suggest an adaptive aspect to depression? If sufferers of depression find meaning and insight in the down times, I can see that as a positive, optimism and seeing the bright side is part of recovery. But to suggest that treatments for depression are robbing us of a biologically adaptive state is simply rubbish. I say this as someone who had suffered severe depression, suicidal ideation, and so forth. I no longer do and it's a blessing - I am far more effective now in every aspect of my life than I was when I was depressed. I have also seen someone very close to me slide from depression into psychotic depression... which can happen in a small percentage of cases if depression is untreated.

PS The only realistic adaptive explanation is given above by MattXIV, and it isn't something you can put a positive spin on as this article does - it also doesn't explain the return to normal or even supra-normal activity by many depressed people upon recovery.

PPS This is what really got me: "The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse." This statement lacks evidence and the potential for it to be destructive in the life of someone who reads it and takes it seriously is obvious.

The linked research article suggests that:
1. Complex problems related to fitness oriented goals trigger depressed affect
2. While depressed the body can analyze the complex problem triggering the depression better
3. In the depressed state the body is more therefore more likely to solve the complex problem and this makes deression an evolutionary favorable trait
4. When people are depressed they are thinking about the complex problem so they can't focus on other tasks (such as lab activities).

Interesting hypotheses. However, your example of Darwin is confusing. How could Darwin focus on 'other tasks' such as coming up with the theory of evolution if his mind was using its valuable resources to focus on solving the complex analytical problem related to fitness goals? Wouldn't such behavior go against 4? Also, wouldn't it go against 3?

Perhaps you are making the argument that our ability to think better on a specific problem while depressed is like our ability to run - sure the evolutionary impetus for the latter may have been to escape from predators, but people also use the ability to win medals for instance. Similarly, perhaps, depression may have evolutionarily been useful for solving a fitness-related problem but perhaps people like Darwin are using the depressed state to tackle other complex problems.

However, I see a problem with this:
Running in the olympics does not make a person less likely to escape from a lion. However, wasting limited resources on a non-fitness related problem should be evolutionary detrimental as the depressed person would be MUCH less likely to solve the fitness related problem.

Or perhaps, you are saying that the 'theory of evolution' was, for Darwin's mind at least, a fitness-related problem; this theory was the primary focus of his mind (even though your piece seems to suggest that this may have been an 'escape' for him - or may be you think that focusing on the fitness-related problem itself would be THE 'escape' for the depressed mind).

I agree with the authors (and you, perhaps) that symptomatic treatments for depression may not be effective. However, rather than leaving depression untreated in order to enable the mind to work its way through some problem I would suggest the following:

Since not all complex problems have solutions, perhaps a counsellor can help a patient somehow utilize some of the leftover mental resources to judge whether the complex problem can be reasonably solved or is even worthy of being solved. Why go through depression worrying about an irrelevant problem, or worse still an un-solveable problem (and thanks to Godel we know that such problems exist).

Of course, all this requires a conscious identification of the problem that has triggered the depressed affect.

TwelveTwo has a point: what if the complex problem is one that does
not have an answer? Does the depression become an unescapeable
loop, or does it resolve on its own?

I suffer from depression, currently in remission, and while
I have reservations about the theory proposed by this initial
glimpse of this article...having experienced this disorder
firsthand...I'll still read it. The original research paper as
well...if I can find a mobile friendly version.

I found your article via the NYT's.

For the past 30 years I've been struggling with hereditary depression. Most of those years I was medicated, first with Prozac, then a succession of newer drugs that never solved my problems.

I've worked with various physiologist and therapist, using different methods, that never solved my problems.

Slowly I decided to just accept the fact that I will always be somewhat depressed. That's who I am. Now when my moods start to slide downward, instead of getting worried, I allow myself to accept the dips, as a result of this acceptance, my down moods are less severe and occur less frequently.

I know medications have their place, but medicating people to make them happy appears to a cure for a "problem" that should be accepted as part of a normal human function for some people.

Depression is clearly maladaptive. However, when people recover from depression they may do so by changing their life goals from unachievable goals to more achievable ones (e.g. chasing after a slightly less hot girl and actually having a relationship, going for a job they are definitely able to get rather than a dream job they can't get, both of which are things that might have made someone depressed in the first place).

Hence recovery from depression might be adaptive, even though it is not adaptive itself.

Also, personality traits associated with depression might be adaptive. People who are less likely to have a delusional Self Serving Bias are more likely to be depressed, but are also better at rational analysis of the world - this could explain scientists like Darwin becoming depressed. An example of self serving bias is the fact that most human beings believe they are more attractive than average, or are better drivers than average - clearly some of these people are delusional! The self serving bias fails in the depressed.

Hence we might have a situation in which increased ability to be rational instead of having ego boosting delusions is adaptive, but at the cost that increases the likelihood of depression. Also that the ability to recover from depression is adaptive.

Not everything about human psychology can be easily explained by evolutionary psychology - the multitude of social factors involved in depression suggest that it is a cultural as well as biological phenomenon. A combined Biopsychosocial model is the only sensible way to understand it.

I agree with comments by MattXIV and CM - group selection could more easily explain depression. Remember that another way of viewing natural selection is not that it is survival of the fittest genes, but the culling of the weakest - hence depression causing you to have less sex and kill yourself would make a lot of sense. There doesn't have to be a "gene" for depression t cause it to be heritable - it could be an emergent phenomena due to having a multitude of genes, bad habits in one's thinking and a bad social environment.

Not EVERYTHING in psychology is caused by Genetics!!!

@ Matt XIV:

I think you're description is a bit too literal when it comes to what Andrews/Thomson says about group selection; it's not that people who are depressed commit suicide/refuse to procreate so that successful and "quality" people can reap what's left. It's more to do with how depression allows a person to adapt to their surroundings. The rumination is supposed to be a sign that something's not right - it's a puzzle the person needs to solve - after which, they can move on with their lives (at least in the temporarily depressed state after a divorce or a death of a loved one or whatever). It's similar to the grieving process, except the person is "stuck" - and Andrews seeks to unstick his patients by speeding up the rumination process (by determining what the problem is and teaching ways to overcome it). If they are successful, the person is better equipped to adapt to their lives, by accepting/understanding what's happened and then by moving forward - they've gained "wisdom" and will theoretically be able to deal with these situations better in the future. I don't think they were postulating that depression is some kind of natural selection that kills off the undesirables.

@ Tom Michael:

Just read your post. If getting a "less hot girl" or a not-dream job are things that cause depression, you're either confused about what depression actually is or you're under the impression that people are weaker than they really are. In any case, that's just ridiculous.

I remember a piece on possible evolutionary advantages in the science section of a Dutch newspaper a couple of years back.

The story may have been specific to winter depression, and cited the advantage of having people in the gene pool (or genes in the human population) that discourage exploration and initiative during the long cold winters in the north.

By Henk Langeveld (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

Yes, indeed, "the tonic of despair" or, as we refer to it in in the rooms of AA, the "gift" of despair.

Thanks, Jonah, for sharing. You point out many parallels to the 4th thru 7th steps of 12-step recovery, where a fearless and searching (deeply reflective) moral inventory is undertaken, accompanied by a willingness to embrace the gift of despair, and then let go of those negative, destructive traits that stood as roadblocks to personal development.

Great article. I appreciate how it provided some concrete tools therapists can use with patients on the low end of the depression continuum.

By Laura Shaw (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

Anodyne wrote: "Do they make any distinction between (to simplify) plain ol' regular heritable depression, and that which goes much deeper?"

First, you're setting up two false categories, implying that heritable depression is not intertwined with other factors in one's life.

Second, I can attest that "plain ol' heritable depression" goes, in fact, quite deep and doesn't merit the flippancy you use.

Some interesting points, but I think the basic thesis is pretty shaky. Just because a few exceptional individuals like Darwin/Churchill/Lincoln have been able to achieve in spite of their depression doesn't mean that depression has some hidden adaptive value. It's worth noting that Darwin came from an affluent and influential family that gave him the means to thrive despite being emotionally hobbled. The critical statistic to know would be how many other Darwin-caliber intellects were leveled by depression.

If there is an evolutionary explanation for depression, it's unlikely to have romantic overtones, or have much of anything to do with lifelong learning & improvement. A more likely (if less appealing) explanation is that modern life simply overburdens a stress response that's better suited for in the moment decision-making, escape, and retaliation. When this system is tonically active (worrying about mortgage, promotion, health, kids) bad things start to happen: neurons shrivel up, and whole brain regions (the hippocampus, for example) start to erode.

Under this view, the prevalence is simply a consequence of the fact that human societies changed very quickly in the recent past, before evolution had a chance to 'sculpt' brain circuits better suited for modern demands.

Has the following view lost currency?

Depression is a mechanism for preventing suicidal behavior. For example, it would prevent a defeated animal from too soon returning to attack the victorious animal which might kill it in its weakened state. When a depression is lifting, say with the aid of pharmaceuticals, is a dangerous time because the possibility of action, including suicidal action, is returning.

I don't know where I heard it, but that explanation made sense to me. I would add that the trait would be successful because the animal likely to be defeated by an alpha must be pretty close to being an alpha too, hence once or in the future able to pass on its genes.

As a sufferer of recurrent major depression, I wish it would be made clear to people that sadness, even prolonged sadness, from grief or disappointment or any such obvious thing is not the same as depression. At the depths of depression that still let you leave the bed for more than a slow miserable trip to the lav, it is possible to have moments of happiness. When it's lifted enough to let you have limited time outside, it is possible to even appear happy to others.

It's awful to lose loved ones when already depressed because depression does not let you fully grieve. I think it's important to experience what emotions you can when you can.

By the way: I was prescribed different anti-depressants at different times before finally finding one that works well enough. It took me years to accept that I really did have a medical problem and wasn't just pathetic. The drug that works only works well enough to allow me to make the effort to be normal, and I kind of like that I have to make that bit of effort. Still, my new doctor has presented an option that may make that constant effort (like treading water) unnecessary, and I'm certainly open to it.


I recently read your article, entitled: "Depressionâs Upside" in the NYT. While I found the material to be thought-provoking, I think that there are some clear flaws in the thesis that is presented.

While it is interesting to consider that the rumination effect seen in people suffering from depression might have a potentially useful evolutionary purpose, it is logically incorrect to assume that depression as a whole is simply a bi-product of a normally functioning system. The evidence quite simply does not support such an assertion. Indeed, this is particularly noticeable in cases of severe depression, where sufferers often undergo major structural and functional changes to their brains. Particularly in this type of depression, there is evidence that the ailment has a clear organic basis (of course it's hard to say what causes these changes in the brain, but that is besides the point to this argument). While Dr. Thompson might provide interesting anecdotes and a few studies which incidentally support his hypothesis, this kind of support does not present scientific evidence. Hence, it is both unwise and irresponsible of him to translate a working hypothesis into his clinical treatment program--indeed such an action directly opposes an evidence-based practice of medicine. Moreover, although there is little doubt that there are cases of both minor and major depression where cognitive therapy or lifestyle changes will produce positive effects, this is not the same as saying that the symptoms of depression are simply a normal response to difficult problems in people's lives. In particular, the heterogeneity of the disorder that you mention in your article speaks directly to this point.

Another problem I have noticed is that this article closes on a rather confusing note. Rather than summarizing actual evidence relating depression to improved thinking, it starts linking sadness with depression. This confusion stems from an often less-than-well understood distinction: sadness is a transient feeling of low mood, whereas depression is marked by long-term changes in mood and affect that are difficult to reverse. Luckily, I think you do develop a potentially correct argument near the article's close, namely that "depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process". Based on this supposition, does the rumination hypothesis provide a potential evolutionary explanation for the existence of ruminative thought, as seen in depression? Sure. Is there scientific evidence supporting such a hypothesis? Not so much. Indeed, looking at your article in particular, I would point out that the dearth of evidence for this hypothesis is rather apparent. Either way, the bottom line is that depression is now understood to be a dysfunction in normal brain processing. Thus, it is clear that whatever selective adaptation might be provided by the ability to ruminate is clearly not the symptom seen in depression.

What I really think this article should be suggesting is that the rumination hypothesis provides a potentially informative window from which to view minor, often short-lived (e.g. a few months) depressive symptoms. Indeed, in an age where pharmaceuticals are very likely over-prescribed, I think it is healthy to consider hypotheses that stress less invasive interventions for people with problems that are not particularly life-threatening. However, I feel that the manner in which this article was presented does not accurately represent the current consensus in the scientific community. Rather it supports a viewpoint that is both appealing and unsubstantiated, lending this hypothesis rather too much legitimacy in the eyes of a primarily lay readership. Personally, while I have no problem with the material of this article per se, I think that the high risk of misinformation associated with an article of this sort suggests a need for more impartiality in the conclusion of the piece.

Great NYTimes article! You presented the subject very well. I think the Andrews/Thomson theory has much merit. The fact that some cases of depression might fit the theory better than others doesn't bother me. Rumination, sadness and depression and the changes they make do have evolutionary value. In some they work well, in some they don't and in some they get out of control. We are, after all, products of our evolution and many of our traits work this way. There is no reason the complex ways our brains function can't be explained in this manner.

By William Carpenter (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

Hi, Jonah:

Apart from the article, which was fascinating: you write really well. Do you dabble in fiction? If not, you should...otherwise, why are you mentioning steep cheekbones and aquiline noses?
You might just be well-edited as far your sentence structure and paragraph organization, but the way you succinctly draw conclusions and paraphrase in layman's terms has to be yours...I was impressed.
It would be nice to read someone with your intelligence and skill...there aren't many John Irvings around...

By Charlie S. (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

Note to FOB @ #17... and AA is no more successful than other recovery methodologies, is a religion, and has not kept up with addiction science.

Other than that, it's just peachy-keen, but because most counselors, MDs, etc., don't know about alternatives like SMART ( or Lifering Secular Recovery ( they just keep sending people to AA.

Victor Frankl's 'logotherapy' aligns well with the methods of depression 'recovery' you speak of in the article. The article is fantastic, by the way. Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" tracks his experience as a concentration camp inmate. He uses his experience as a template for the logos of his coping methods, of his survival technique.

In his case, he was finding reasons to live. But I found that the qualities of his psychotherapeutic method to be successful in my own self-defeating ruminatory habits. Logotherapy is a sort of existential search for meaning. He uses one example of a man who fears social outings because he has a tremendous sweating problem. Frankl tells him to not fear his problem, but to accept it, and maybe make a joke about it next time he's in a social situation. The patient followed his advice and next time, didn't sweat nearly at all.

Logotherapy promotes action. It promotes a going on with tasks while not necessarily ignoring the depression, anxiety, etc., but not letting it be at the forefront of the mind. Now this wouldn't work with more extreme cases of depression, for those cases involve an inability to do much of anything. But for what most people experience, an acceptance of this 'flattening of emotion' and a willful activity IN it, involves a focusing on the practical task at hand. Working passes time, and in many cases it is time that heals the wound. And if mental clarity is indeed an upside of depression, which your article argues well in favor of, then doing work in a state of depression, accepting it and not fearing it, is another fruitful component to rumination.

So acceptance of this state is in a way welcoming it as a part of one's life process. Working through it is part of the individual will/survival technique. Finding meaning in depression is likewise a working with depression.

From the penultimate para of the NYT article:

"And then thereâs the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence â people become unwilling to communicate â thereâs some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods âpromote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.â

Quite a slip-slide in three sentences from "self-loathing/depression" to "states of unhappiness" to "sadness" and "negative moods." These, unfortunately, are all very different things. And in the case of a supposedly serious article about the benefits of depression words are important and require careful use.

I may perform better on an intelligence test or write more expressively if I'm "sad" or in a "negative mood." Most assuredly, I may never even finish the test or complete the book if I'm depressed and self-loathing. Serious depression stops constructive thinking in its track, it doesn't channel it into useful reflection or creativity.

By Harmiclir (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

Yes, depression is very prevalent these days, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has been selected for by evolution. We live lives very different from our evolutionary forbears, in many ways.

For example we spend far more time indoors, get less exercise and less sunlight. Our diets contain lots of processed food, meaning most of us take in far fewer B vitamins, among other things.

These are all factors that have a known link to depression. And we haven't even started on the potential social or psychological factors of modern life, like lack of free time to spend with family and friends, exposure to advertising, etc.

If we have *evidence* that this catalogue of depression-promoting lifestyle traits is not what's causing all this depression, then is the time to reach for the 'counter-intuitively adaptive trait' stick. But for the moment maybe we could jog along with the simpler explanation.

It's been a long time that I am looking for the post the same as what you have right now. I want this because it gives all the information that i need to know and it is complete. Can you recommend any source about it?

the study you cite at the end of the article could easily have misinterpreted everything. a different way to look at it is this: when someone is very focused on a task, they're likely to perform better. when someone is very focused on a task (ie, the buddhists and athletes call it "in the zone") they are also likely to feel more disoriented and melancholic when the task is over. therefore, it's not sadness that makes them do well on the task. the sadness was measured not DURING the task, but AFTER. it's just what they feel in that moment of disorientation when it's over.

the problem i had with this article, and much science writing, is that you're taking results of a study and interpreting them in the way that bolsters your thesis. there are many more ways to interpret this stuff.

"The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse."

This statement is wrong and misleading in that it is certainly not the obvious alternative. It is at best a logically possible alternative. The mistaken assumption behind the statement and this posting/article is the idea that all characteristics have some adaptive value, which is blatantly not true, even on a neo-Darwinian approach to evolution. Most characteristics of any organism have NO adaptive value (i.e. actually gave a reproductive advantage to their bearers), but are simply along for the ride with other characteristics that were of actual adaptive value. It is thus highly irresponsible to spin a story about the adaptive value of something that is extremely destructive to many people's lives. I have no problem with people pursuing this as a potential line of investigation, but presenting it as if it has anything more than speculative plausibility seems wildly inappropriate.

I just read "Depression's Upside". During my horrendous experience with depression, any special ability to focus was totally driven by a CRAVING DESIRE to focus. Focusing on something other than "that which was constantly going on in my head" was the ONLY relief I could find (besides sleep) from the sheer hell I was in. But it had to be intense and gripping intellectual activity or it had no chance of even slightly blocking the pain.

My bouts with depression were directly related to taking the birth control pill and, most acutely, childbirth. My third post-partum experience almost did me in. After years of searching, I finally found relief by taking taking a monoamine-oxidase inhibitor along with a thyroid supplement. At 57 I'm still taking these two drugs. I had discovered there had been some success in treating PPD with this old-fashioned class of drug (MAOI)while researching the work of Dr. Katarina Dalton (England) during the eighties.

The odd thing is, although I wouldn't wish ten seconds of the indescribable darkness and pain of severe depression on anyone, that experience ironically has affected my life in a profoundly positive way.

The NYT article is thoughtful presentation of the complex, multiple perspectives surrounding the Andrews/Thompson theories. Perhaps you can help the New Yorker magazine clean up some of the mess recently created by Louis Menand's indefensible, arrogant and superficial analysis of depression and medication. Your NYT article is well referenced and allows the reader room for debate...although I might agree with an earlier comment that the "cheekbones" and description of Darwin's peculiar affliction would serve you well in fiction. Nancy Oliveri, LCSW Psychotherapy

By Nancy Oliveri … (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

I think Sophia might be unto something. In evolutionary context it might be that our primative minds and bodies might be maladapted to the stresses we put them through in our modern high stress lifestyles. Indeed , poor diet, lack of regular exercise, being indoors too much, lack of sleep, sensory overload. Is it really any wonder we're deppresed, when you think about it, it's a wonder we're not more deppresed. More primative less civilized cultures don't seem to suffer as much from depression as we do. Maybe we should be taking a hard long look at what part our so called civilized lifestyle is playing.

Note to SocraticGadfly @ 26

It made me think too hard, so I had to go take some Prozac.

By Roger Bigod (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

Jonah, it would be very interesting if you could someday relate what you write here, especially about the power to focus, to ideas of "flow".

thanks for an intriguing article.

Few more comments:

1. First, it's nice to see Victorian males as well as females suffered from "hysteria" (yes, Charles Darwin, and Spencer, etc., that's YOU) but were too sexist to call it that.

2. Jonah, when you caveat your own lede with "may," shouldn't you be a bit less bold in your claims?

3. Related to that, I had expected you to be less credulous here than in the "balanced" story, and not more so. Pop Ev Psych of the Thomson/Andrews nature doesn't even look at epigenetics on mental states issues, it would seem. We know that with things such as anxiety, the brain can literally be "reset," in a sense. Ditto, it would seem, with depression. And, with no adaptationist benefit, it would seem.

Blow up your cyber-blackboard on this one.…

Yet more critique, in part per other commenters:

#28, follow-up to Jonah. Self-loathing does not necessarily induce depression. Nor is it necessarily part of depression. I know one can self-loathe without being depressed, and think that to some degree the opposite is true, too.

Also, Jonah, the end-of-story study said people focused only when **DISTRACTED** from their depressive thinking. Doesn't that hugely undercut the adaptationist idea?

if people go off medication only to relapse means that meds work!! i think you are confused....when one is depressed they are not thinking "normally".

i may know what my problems are but can't stop them from overtaking me, so meds are a life saver. as you wrote in the nytimes, the contented women on meds, still lives with the bastard alcoholic but accepts him is now a start for her to make a plan to get away.....she now has the energy, motivation and can at last think logically...clearly.

Here's something to chew on. Maybe evolution and selection of the fitest is still at work. Which might mean that the ones who are smart enough to eliminate the choices in a modern lifestyle that are actually contributing to their own demise, might actually be the ones evolution selects to survive!!!! Hmmmm,,,, something to ponder!!

A friend who read the article pointed out to me that Joe Forgas is very definitely at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, not the University of South Wales. You should get the NYT to correct the otherwise interesting article.

Great article! I am amazed by how accurately your article and the 'rumination' theory explain my current predicament. I'm an out of work physicist who is in the middle of the rumination cycle myself. In fact, it seems like all my life Physics has also meant unhappiness and feelings of inadequacy even though I have a Ph.D! It feels like I've tried my best to run away from Physics/unhappiness and don't quite seem to succeed every time. I fear I'm caught in the paradox you describe in the end, of trying to make this sadness work for me while my instinct is to flee. I don't know if your article will help me but at least what I'm going through doesn't seem somehow 'unnatural' now! Reading the article also reminded me of this video where Richard Feynman explains confusion:

The scientists mentioned in your article need to read about Dabrowski's theory of overexcitablilities and recent research on the orchid hypothesis. Darwin and his like could have been just as productive and creative without the depression. Creative and intellectual greatness is the product of a highly sensitive temperament. This same temperament makes one more vulnerable to poor parenting and adverse life circumstances and in this way can lead to depression----thus the association between genuis and "melancholoy." However, this is an association, not cause and effect. Had Darwin had emotionally responsive parenting and help learning to process his emotions, he would have been less depressed, yet just as productive.

For more background on this view of depression, and a broader view of what the full spectrum of depressive symptoms might be about from an adaptive perspective, see the paper I authored with Paul Andrews in 2002 here,… as well as papers published by Dr. Edward Hagen (mentioned in the NYT piece) via links here,

I first learned of the gifts of depression from Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul.

"Chapter 7: Gifts of Depression," in Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992, ISBN: 0060165979, pp. 137-154.

Read the full-text here:…

By Anthony Sebastian (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

Peter Kramer strongly took issue between deep "sadness" that is a hallmark of mild or moderate depression, and the "oppresive flattening of feeling", the hollowing out of the self, that is a sign of severe depression. I wish that you had elaborated your differences with Kramer on this issue more fully. Thanks for a very illuminating NYT's article.

Read a response to the this article from the perspective of analytic psychology and social psychology, here:…

Analytic psychology (that of Carl Jung), as A. Sebastian points out by referencing Thomas Moore's book in the above comment, has been suggesting for 100 years that culture and renewed life come from our descents into darkness.

Still, the arguement that medication is never the answer is dangerous and can be deadly. Like with all things, the middle way. See above link.

Jessica: "Anodyne wrote: "Do they make any distinction between (to simplify) plain ol' regular heritable depression, and that which goes much deeper?"

First, you're setting up two false categories, implying that heritable depression is not intertwined with other factors in one's life.

Hence my qualifier of "to simplify"...

Second, I can attest that "plain ol' heritable depression" goes, in fact, quite deep and doesn't merit the flippancy you use."

Well of course; depression is depressing, no matter what the major factor is. To clarify, I meant depression that's more caused by genetically influenced chemical imbalances in the brain vs, for example, depression brought on by being a prisoner of war that receives heavy emotional, psychological, and physical abuse on a daily basis. While the same brain chemicals are involved in both scenarios, the latter example is more complex.

While the feeling of despair is the same (and that I certainly did NOT intend to make light of. Depression is a terrible and painful thing, no matter why it exists.), the roots are different. I just wondered if the difference might have any role in what they found.

I absolutely find it reasonable to believe that the prevalence of depression can be explained by evolution, but the paper by Andrews and Thomson is supported by a problematic hypothesis. The authors observe that rumination is many times the response to psychological trauma, such as the death of someone close or recent unemployment, and everyday problems play a major causative role in the development of a mental condition like depression. The description sounds like it is better applied to sadness, which can be assessed as a healthy response to stress. Depression can be genetically linked and sufferers probably are not always able to accredit their attitude to specific problems in their lives. And even if someone with this condition finds a solution to their troubles, since depression is characterized by âthe inability of depressed subjects to experience pleasure or their lack of interest in food, sex and social interactions,â it seems unlikely they would have interest in enthusiastically pursuing any plan of action. An example used in the article was depression triggered by a bitter divorce. Self-inquiries into the individualâs behavior throughout the marriage may prompt the person to decide they must act differently in their next marriage. But when the time comes that they are remarried, do they actually change their behavior? Also, since self-loathing can be a symptom, wouldnât some truly depressed individuals constantly diminish their own solutions to the point that they are not worth acting upon? The researchers need to narrow their findings to certain types of depression and situations because it seems like the analytic-ruminative hypothesis would not bestow positive evolutionary effects on a depressed individual who decides not to change their demeanor.

I am also apprehensive that potential treatment programs stemming from research like this would not be useful in treating patients with chronic depression. Rumination would not have a positive effect on a person constantly plagued by depression because they would inevitably have a string of problems that need to be addressed. A lot of times, depression is not triggered by a single life occurrence, but rather is a genetic predisposition. In this situation, it seems like it would be useful to additionally treat this chemically with antidepressants like serotonin reuptake inhibitors rather than through therapy alone as Dr. Thomson recommends. Further research must be done before doctors avoid prescribing medications altogether and change their methods of treating depression.

Fascinating article. As a psych undergrad I greatly admire your writing and your ability to bridge trends in clinical practice, experimental research and examples from literature and art to place issues of the mind in a broader and more encompassing perspective.

One concern:

A lot of the literature on mood and cognitive processing styles comes from the literature of psychologist Norbert Schwarz of U-Michigan and his âfeelings as information model.â
(see Feelings and Phenomenal Experiences

However, when Andrews says, âDepressed affect made people think better,â this is a gross simplification of the literature. Negative mood has experimentally only shown benefits for analytic reasoning tasks, whereas positive mood has been associated with better performance on creative reasoning tasks such as the Remote Associates Test and Dunckerâs Candle problem which require creative and novel cognitive strategies.

I was hoping you could clarify your connection between artistic production and the cognitive processing related to depressed mood. Would not creativity and novelty (fostered by positive mood) be just as important? The rate of depressive states among artists and successful people at large is in very interesting and worth explaining, but do you think that link is mood related cognitive style

By Eli Neustadter (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'm sorry if I am repeating a comment -- I can't make it through them all. I also am not able to read either of the articles in entirety. Having said that, I found the central thesis of this argument -- that depressive rumination may be an adaptation for analyzing complex problems -- would-be laughable. I have suffered from treatment-refractory severe major depressive disorder for 5-6 years. That is the length of the current episode, which while particularly bad, is not the only one I've experienced. This time, I was forced to withdraw from a PhD program in which I was excelling, because I lost the ability to read, write, or focus on anything. There was no indicative problem to be solved, other than that, despite having an enviable support system, as I lost all hope for myself as that self receded into the past, I lost patience and simply wanted to die. I wouldn't even say I focus on the pain; I'd say it focuses on me. The familiar emphasis on brilliant people who somehow outmaneuvered their depression is dangerous romance. The fact that the incidence of depression is "high" now is likely due to two factors: the slow lifting of stigma and the fact that many writers throw every kind of depression (and there are different kinds) into one net.

great read! though I think the end could have been more positive since I think just reading this article and becoming aware of the function of depression would greatly lessen its severity, since (at least for me) depressive moods used to spiral out of control when the positive feedback loop of "becoming depressed about being depressed" was formed, but knowing that it serves a function would prevent the downward spiral. Basically, what we should strive towards is keep the analytical ruminations and do away with the hurt, I think.

By Soheil Danesh (not verified) on 02 Mar 2010 #permalink

it is the sadness that informs as it "leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial."

This is the most important sentence of this article. Depression is prevalent because people have not found the correct environment for themselves. They are able to survive,even if they are doing something they aren't particular good at that they don't like. And if we accept something we just aren't fit for, depression is the appropriate reaction of our body.
There of course is a fine balance. And some depression is certainly a disorder.

There is the notion we are all programmed or defined by the age of five. And subsequent life may be the process of undoing of all the trauma and mis-perceptions we assumed.

I accept the idea that depression has a function or purpose, but accept more that it can be an impermanent phase of human existence.

We all walk around with masks and other coping mechanisms and until we dare to resolve our issues and face our demons, we will fail to be authentic.

Ironically those in depression can be the ones closer to resolution than those pretending everything is just fine as their reality is crumbling.

There are ways through the grief, pain, and helplessness but a lot of resolve and honesty are required.

thanks for putting out the idea that depression may actually serve a purpose in our journey as human beings.