Jonathan Rottenberg proposes an evolutionary explanation for depressive illnesses. Rather than a defect in brain chemicals, thoughts, or childhood experiences, he suggests it is not a defect at all, but a survival trait that has become maladaptive in the modern environment. His thought-provoking insights are based on recent animal and human research studies.
Ugh, evo psych. I really don’t like going down the “you feel this way for a good reason” route, because from there it’s only a short step to “you deserve to feel like this and it’s pointless to try to fix it.”
99% of the time, I have a burning dislike of evo psych.
Besides, his suggestion is counter to everything we know about Depressive disorders. If it wasn’t brain chemicals/neurotransmitters not quite doing their jobs properly, then absolutely none of the various medications we have wouldn’t work for anyone with that cause for their Depression. If you’re problem is a spiral of negative thoughts or traumatic experiences, then therapy wouldn’t help people - and it does.
I get the feeling that Rottenberg doesn’t have Depression (or any mental illness at all, in fact). So I took a look at the article.
"When depressed, people are more realistic; they are more deliberate, skeptical, and careful in processing information from the environment."
And that tells me everything I need to know. Depression is being framed as making people “more realistic”. When you’re Depressed, you’re beyond realistic; you’re pessimistic and apathetic.
"Depression allows us to stop, retreat to an emotional cocoon, analyze what went wrong, and hopefully change course to avoid future calamities."
Depression caused by very specific things, sure. My dad was Depressed when his best friend of about 30 years died, but that Depression isn’t the same as something that’s hardwired into your brain through genetics or trauma.
"But low mood has its costs, too. Whatever the benefits, there are plenty of negative effects like distorted thinking, delusions, suicide, difficulty in concentrating and functioning, and weakened executive functions in the brain."
And all of these outweigh the alleged benefits. There’s also no talk of Depression with psychotic symptoms.
" A shallow depression can be adaptive, but a deep depression is maladaptive. There’s a continuum, and any cut-off point to divide normal from abnormal is arbitrary."
Maybe my “shallow Depression” is different than everyone else’s, but I actually find it to be quite maladaptive. When I’m going through a Depression Lite episode, I’m always afraid that it’ll get worse and I’ll be stuck in a considerably worse situation than I am at the time. Nothing is enjoyable and while I may not sleep the day away (only to be greeted by intense insomnia later), I’m on the verge of not functioning very well. It’s easier to hide, but in no way is it adaptive. You can be realistic without suffering Depression.
"Animals often act as if they are mourning after they lose a significant other."
When our family dog of 9 years was put to sleep last year, one of our other dogs sat by his grave. I think that dogs feel sadness when a packmate dies, but I don’t think they understand death. I could be underestimating dogs, on the other hand. It’s possible that some animals, such as gorillas and ravens, have an understanding of death. But what most animals know is that their buddy isn’t there anymore, and that’s distressing for them. Observing many animals as “mourning” may be people projecting humanity and emotions onto animals. But we also can’t crawl into an animal’s brain and find out what they’re thinking.
" Adolescent girls who had depressive symptoms became more disengaged from goals over time, but the more disengaged they were, the better off they were in later assessments, reporting lower levels of depression."
Who did the study? How large was the sample size? What was the control group? Why did the girls have Depressive symptoms? Did they have them because society is shitty and they began to unlearn (or internalize and ignore) the messages they were being sent? Or was it more like teenage angst where the frontman of some band is the only one that understands your soul?
" In a starvation experiment, subjects developed the signs of depression as their bodies reacted to conserve the insufficient calories. Their energy and concentration diminished, they lost all interest in sex, and they ruminated obsessively about food. By preventing action they couldn’t afford, depression contributed to their survival on scanty rations."
These people are starving and you look at it and say “ah, yes. Depression helped them just because they didn’t do something they would have were they not fucking starving”. To be honest, I’d like to know who did the starvation experiment because it sounds unethical.
”Some kind of loss is always present in depression, whether it be the death of a child or an imagined loss of status.” ????????? What about the cyclical hell that is Major Depressive Disorder? I’ll be tooling around for awhile and I feel it creep up on me. Then, like a wave, it crashes over me and I spend weeks or even months using all of my energy to just barely stay afloat so I don’t drown. Where is the loss you’re talking about?
”Mild depressions outnumber deep ones six to one. Low-level sadness is so ordinary it is often overlooked. But having a mild depression quintuples the risk of a later major depression.”
I haven’t seen a single citation in this article so far, but this seems at least semi-accurate. But if mild Depression is supposed to be adaptive, then why would so many people be at increased risk for major Depression later on? Perhaps these mild episodes come from a negative event that eats away at the soul, or is symptomatic of a chemical imbalance. I understand that evolution isn’t perfect and that humans have quite a few maladaptive behaviours, but if this guy is talking about how mild Depression “can totally be a good thing, just hear me out!”, and having a mild episode quintuples one’s risk of a major episode, wouldn’t arguing that mild Depression is a good thing - tacitly arguing that we should embrace it - highly unethical?
Rottenberg says “Homo sapiens has the distinction of being a species that can become depressed without a major environmental insult.” We think our way into deeper depressions by rumination and self-flagellation[…]”
The burden of higher brain functions, I suppose. But I don’t see what this adds to his argument. So what if people can think themselves into deeper episodes? Shouldn’t we work on removing the stigma from mental illness and supporting these people instead of allowing their mild episodes to turn far, far worse because you, likely neurotypical asshat, think a mild episode is actually beneficial?
"Humans can set goals in abstract domains where progress is hard to measure. When they hold on to failing goals, they become depressed."
"Asians tend to place greater value on low arousal states like calm and serenity."
1: What do you suggest, neurotypical bent Lego?
2: Which “Asians” are you talking about? What period of history? Which specific cultures? Which socioeconomic class? Which religion/s? Shintoism? Buddhism? “Asians” isn’t a good enough word, though you think it is.
"According to Rottenberg, depression arises not from a defect, but from what we do well: thinking, using language, holding onto ambitious goals, and even our drive to be happy."
This is getting ridiculous. I know he’s not saying “if you get an A on that paper, you’ll be Depressed!” But this ignores literally every other cause of Depression at all ever.
"He offers clues about how low moods can be better managed: appreciating the costs of thinking, sometimes accepting a low mood with equanimity, aiming for goals that are high but not too high, knowing when it is time to give up on a goal, and realizing that happiness is not itself a goal but “a fleeting byproduct of progress towards other goals.” Despite the evolutionary directive to become depressed, we retain a margin of control to shape its course.”
I will never accept a low mood. This is something I’ve lived with for as long as I can remember. If my low mood doesn’t have a cause that’s clear to me, then I will not accept it. I will never see it as something adaptive.
Knowing when it’s time to give up isn’t bad advice, though. Sometimes you just can’t get something done. Although, you could also move the goalposts or utilize some creative thinking to get to that goal.
And Happiness, as this abstract, nebulous thing, probably shouldn’t be one’s objective. I don’t know about you all, but until I received some bad news the other day I was happy. I was happy because things were going well, not because I had recently accomplished anything. But because I was experiencing the warm Happiness that you feel when things are good (and you’re not having a Depressive episode). I cherish Happiness; never in my life have I seen it as a fleeting byproduct of achieving something, and Rottenberg’s line of thinking isn’t necessarily a healthy one, either.
"Early improvement doesn’t predict final outcome. Early improvers may face fewer life problems, have an innate resilience, or maybe they are just lucky"
They may have a stronger support system and a doctor that doesn’t think mild Depression is a beneficial evolutionary mechanism, either.
"but the same brain plasticity also allows for re-re-programming to a more normal state with treatments like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which attempts to disconnect sad moods from negative thoughts about the self."
While this doesn’t work for everyone, it’s worth a try if your problem is the negative thoughts. It might help if you suffer low self-esteem/self-worth, too.
Depression can be viewed as an opportunity. Rottenberg describes a patient who used her depression as a lens to re-evaluate everything in her life and re-set her priorities. Her life was better after the depressive episode than before.
This just smacks of “Well, she did it! Why can’t you?” to me. When one is severely, deeply Depressed, they don’t know if they’re going to be alive in five years.
"Rottenberg’s concepts may help destigmatize depression. Depressed patients may feel better about their condition if they are told that it is a result of evolutionary traits that are basically good for us but that sometimes overdo it."
This actually pisses me off way more than it destigmatizes Depression, honestly. Destigmatizing Depression isn’t “oh, well, it’s evolution”. It’s educating people on what it is and what it’s like for the person experiencing it. We need to tell people that live with it that they aren’t alone and provide resources where they can get help (this includes resources where the sufferer is anonymous). We need to strengthen their support systems and we need to teach people empathy. In my experience, the “oh my God, I’m such a fucking fuck up why can’t I get over this” that comes with being Depressed is because of the stigmatization. When I was around 8-10 years old, I felt a distinct void in my life. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what. I remember being suicidal at a very young age. I tried to talk to my mother about this void and apathy, but she told me I was too young to feel that way.
That is stigma at work. What would help people feel better about their condition is a)unlearning all the toxic shit about it and b)cleaning things up so that that toxicity doesn’t continue to permeate discussions about mental illness.
Fuck evo psych.
Also, “Hey, I know where depression comes from!” doesn’t do a thing about helping people who have it. (Especially when they don’t actually know.)