Been down so long it looks like up to me
March 17, 2010 3:24 PM   Subscribe

Depression's upside. Could depression be an evolutionary gift? Could kindness? Charles Darwin himself had a history of ailments that may help to illustrate the idea.
posted by stinkycheese (41 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Please don't associate high-level culturally-created and -mediated constructs like depression with the differential survival of polymorphisms.
posted by docgonzo at 3:28 PM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Is everything Freud told us we were all fucked up about really Darwin's fault? Tonight at Eleven.
posted by Elmore at 3:38 PM on March 17, 2010

The only useful piece of information I have gleaned is that Depression : University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop :: Asperger's : Internet Forums
posted by griphus at 3:42 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I bought a curious little pamphlet in a second hand book shop, that was an advert from the 50s for some pharmaceutical company. It was called something like "Famous Thinkers and their Ailments". It included Darwin, George Berkely, Jonathan Swift and Edgar Allen Poe. It was awesome in the way that it detailed how they had insomnia or ulcers, or bowel irritation, or whatever, and why this contributed to their genius. But also why some salts would have cured them of all that.
posted by Elmore at 3:48 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Am I going nuts or did I hear this exact story on the radio or a podcast? Anyone?
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:54 PM on March 17, 2010

You're obviously going nuts. Enjoy it.
posted by Elmore at 3:57 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm all about reclaiming mental illness and finding an upside (I've been dealing with pretty severe OCD and depression since high school), but sentences like these really rub me the wrong way:

"And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression."

"The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair."

Very poetic, but bite me. Depression is bad. Left untreated, it can be a killer (and yes, I understand that the first article is about looking at treatment from a different perspective, but still). Again, it's important to look for an upside, but let's not pretend it's a good thing in of itself. For a lot of people I know (and I'd probably count myself in this group) the challenge is simply coping with really exhausting thoughts and feelings on a day to day basis. After that, you can start talking about accepting and embracing.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 3:57 PM on March 17, 2010 [27 favorites]

The problem with this article is that it doesn't recognize that experiments that put people in a sad mood temporarily do not in any way shape or form replicate the experience of major mdepression, which is repeatedly associated with cognitive deficits in multiple studies.

Are smart, creative people more likely than others to be depressed? Yes, some data suggests this. But that doesn't mean that the depression makes them smart and creative. Nor does it mean that treating the depression makes them less smart or creative.

There's also *no* data showing that people on antidepressants are more likely to do things like stay with abusive husbands, as is claimed might happen if people didn't do the "work" needed to think through a bad situation.

Kindness, however, is almost certainly an adaptation: you can easily see how it would be associated with greater reproductive fitness (kind always comes out in the top three of what both men and women want in mates; men carrying babies are "babe magnets," a woman who *didn't* nurture her child would be less likely to have surviving kids to say the least.. and data shows that in hunter gatherer groups, babies with grandmothers and older sibs are more likely to survive than those without supportive kin-- even more likely to survive than those with dads.).
posted by Maias at 3:57 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

“Poets on Prozac” (2008), anthologies of essays by writers about depression. The ones who took medication say that they write much better than they did when they were depressed. - Head Case
posted by griphus at 4:06 PM on March 17, 2010

Hunter S Thompson's "fits" and "flurries" entertained us all, inevitably... He had a gift, and evolutionary gift, for shooting his head off.
posted by Elmore at 4:13 PM on March 17, 2010

Could kindness?

My mother says that of the six kids, I was the "kind" one, we're talking age three here, I went bad around five. I would give my toy to comfort a crying child I didn't know, apparently. The thing I remember most from that period, is that strange adults were always giving me candy and toys, although I hadn't worked out the correlation as far as I can remember.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:26 PM on March 17, 2010

The cognitive dissonance is weak in this one.
posted by vectr at 4:36 PM on March 17, 2010

Lutoslawski: Am I going nuts or did I hear this exact story on the radio or a podcast? Anyone?

The second link is written by a producer from the CBC radio show Ideas; the third link is a podcast from the CBC radio show Tapestry.
posted by stinkycheese at 5:08 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

"And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression."

Except I find that it's mostly all the wrong people, who experience self-loathing....or don't.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

etc. etc.
posted by availablelight at 5:35 PM on March 17, 2010

uuugh, considering that a depressive flair up can ruin weeks of work and put me at a complete stand-still for days at a time I am not about to give it any credit for anything other than daytime TV ratings.
posted by The Whelk at 5:40 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's not coincidence that so many of our most talented are also our most internally tormented. Contentment isn't exactly motivating.
posted by mek at 5:56 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's entirely possible that there's good science behind this, somewhere.

Unfortunately, since the author seems inable (or at least unwilling) to differentiate between minor unhappy moods induced in an experiment, periods of grief or intense unhappiness brought on by outside events, and major chronic depression, it's hard to tell exactly what the science actually was.

Obsessive thinking about an actual outside problem causing stress and unhappiness? Yeah, I guess I can see that. Days spent so exhausted and full of despair and self-loathing that I don't get out of bed? They're good if you consider it productive to spend hours obsessing over how worthless you are, but they're not really useful for solving problems or making art (which do a lot of, when not depressed) or anything else, really. There are plenty of artists who're pretty happy, on the whole, but the "depression is somehow romantic and inspiring" trope has permeated our culture, and people are more likely to focus on how yeah, they once knew a really depressed artist, and he was really good!
posted by ubersturm at 6:02 PM on March 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I was just thinking today that if I hadn't experienced intense depression I wouldn't be nearly the person I am now. If you've never experienced total existential despair and beaten it, then what can you really understand about reality?
posted by cmoj at 7:13 PM on March 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

If you've never experienced total existential despair and beaten it

You've beaten existential despair? Please to be sending instructions.
posted by jokeefe at 7:20 PM on March 17, 2010 [16 favorites]

I dunno. I read the first page of the article. I faved it so that I could come back to it and read the whole thing.

But my experience with depression (and panic attacks) and just about everything else in the same vein...

The only positive that I can find is relief from it.

I have moments of creativity that I have no doubt are related to what ever brain spasms that I've gone through since I was about 15 or so.

But I'd trade them all for a life of normalcy. Or at least what I consider normalcy.

And that would be waking up and feeling notbad, not good, just not bad. I don't want to be a happy camper. Just not a miserable camper.

I guess this is not clear to people that aren't in my headspace. And I'm not bothered by it. In my life I've tried to explain what I mean and the only people that understand are people like me.

That sounds wrong. But, again, I can't explain it.

Some of the psychiatrists that I have spoken to seem to think that I want to be happy. Maybe even happier than everyone else.

This can't be more untrue.

I just want to be baseline.

Then I'll find happy, thank you.
posted by Splunge at 8:48 PM on March 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you've never experienced total existential despair and beaten it

You've beaten existential despair? Please to be sending instructions.

Up up down down left right left right A B Start.

Humor is actually a fairly good weapon in that fight in my experience.
posted by SomeOneElse at 10:00 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would feel good about this news if I wasn't so depressed.
posted by i_have_a_computer at 10:32 PM on March 17, 2010

Anecdote. I've been "giving up cigarettes" (again) for the last three weeks or so and it has exasperated my bipolar II, but only on the depressive side - my scientific productivity is up, by throwing myself into work in trying to avoid ... whatever ... by my creativity has gone down to zero Kelvin.

Adversity, sure, can be am impetus, but when I'm at my most productive, I'm happy - content in my outside life as well as in my research life, and getting happier with research success sustained by outside life happiness, which fuels my desire to do more research.
posted by porpoise at 10:33 PM on March 17, 2010

I wish my acute anxiety could be labeled an evolutionary gift.
posted by New England Cultist at 2:33 AM on March 18, 2010

I don't think so. Any upsides you find about depression are the result of something else, such as finding the strength to get over the depression, or the insight you may gain about it when you are no longer in the depressed state. Both of these assume you get over the depression; some people never do. I think it's a mistake to think of depression itself as somehow being a gift.

Perhaps the first article points that out, but TL;DR. I did skim read it, but didn't think much of it.

The 2nd article is just laughable as it seems to imply that natural selection is perfect or is the only theory to explain human psychology.
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 4:15 AM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a lifelong sufferer, I can't say I've found any upside to depression (Unless you consider unwavering nihilism and a level of cynicism that makes Lewis Black look like Pollyanna an "upside.")
posted by Thorzdad at 6:13 AM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

tl;dr, but only because I've heard this argument before and the first page was enough to make me mad angry again.

From the vantage point of middle age, I can see how being 'programmed' by evolution for anxiety and dissatisfaction could keep us on our toes and constantly striving for to improve our situation, but the same can be said for curiosity and playfulness and we don't medicate for those (exception - when we mislabel it as ADHD in some kids)

Until SSRIs, we haven't really had efficient treatments for the depression/anxiety/ADD/OCD spectrum. We may have swung a bit too far this way - doctors might currently be too quick to prescribe them, and if they seem to work... hey - must have been depression!

Then we had that recent study that says that SSRIs are on a par with placebos. That study was only based on a 30 or 60 day followup, if I recall correctly, which is the blink of an eye to someone battling a long-term depression. But it got headlines. Imagine how the folks who were actually getting long-term benefits with SSRIs must have felt...

And finally this sort of article which says we're supposed to feel bad, and it somehow makes us better homo sapiens. Well, I'm evolutionarily programmed to kill my neighbour so I can rape his wife, but I don't see many articles rationalizing that behaviour...
posted by Artful Codger at 7:09 AM on March 18, 2010

From the first link:

“This study says nothing about chronic depression and the sort of self-hating, paralyzing, hopeless, circular rumination it inspires,” Kramer wrote. And what about post-stroke depression? Late-life depression? Extreme depressive condition? Kramer argues that there’s a clear category difference between a healthy response to social stressors and the response of people with depressive disorder. “Depression is not really like sadness,” Kramer has written. “It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”

That is how depression manifests in my own experience, and not "sadness" or "low mood" triggered by bad weather, etc, as it's repeatedly refered to in the rest of the article.
posted by fonso at 7:53 AM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I usually argue that if you're able to work (even if it's solitary study, in fact, particularly that), it's not crippling depression.
While I do enjoy speculative evolutionary psychology, the natural selectivity of depression may just be because the selection against it isn't strong enough to eliminate it entirely - that emotions are neutral in selection. Or, possibly, that our sensory apparatus gains from being oversensitive, and mood disorders are the fallout.
posted by limnrix at 8:31 AM on March 18, 2010

This was also discussed on the ABC Radio National show All in the Mind in an episode called Stone Age brains in 21st century skulls looking at how an evolutionary perspective might be usefully combined with treatment approaches using medication and talk therapy.
posted by Athanasius at 9:36 AM on March 18, 2010

You've beaten existential despair? Please to be sending instructions.

Maybe "beaten" isn't a good word, since there's nothing to beat.
posted by cmoj at 10:47 AM on March 18, 2010

So you're just completely full of shit, then? Good to know.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 10:51 AM on March 18, 2010

Of course I am. Do you think you're not?

Sorry I touched a nerve.
posted by cmoj at 12:37 PM on March 18, 2010

Please don't associate high-level culturally-created and -mediated constructs like depression with the differential survival of polymorphisms.

I'm not convinced that these guys are right about depression either, but refusing to apply evolutionary theory to understanding health and disease (including mental health) even as a complement to other explanations strikes me as counter-productive. If the goal is to help people treat and prevent disease and health problems, then the more we understand about our bodies (and the brain is part of the body) the better.

Specifically, in regards to depression, even if Andrew and Thomson are wrong about depression, knowing that they are wrong is helpful (certainly more helpful than not knowing either way). Quoting the article I linked to in the previous paragraph:
Defenses are often confused with diseases. Knowing the difference is crucial, because interfering with a defense is often unwise. Pain is a defense against tissue damage; people who lack this defense usually die by age thirty. Fever is a defense that protects against infection. The low iron levels associated with infection are the body's way of keeping iron away from invading bacteria. Nausea and vomiting and diarrhea are useful ways to rid the body of infection and toxins. The nausea that accompanies pregnancy discourages the mother from eating toxic substances that may harm her baby. Even anxiety and sadness can be useful. As for the runny nose that accompanies colds, we don't yet know if it benefits us or viruses, but we certainly need to know in order to decide if nose sprays will help or harm us.

Much of clinical medicine relieves people's discomfort by blocking defenses like fever, pain, nausea and diarrhea. How can this be safe? Just as smoke detectors are designed to give many annoying but inexpensive false alarms so that they are sure to warn about any actual fire, the mechanisms that regulate the body's defenses have evolved to express defenses whenever they are possibly useful, thus causing much unnecessary suffering.
posted by AceRock at 4:04 PM on March 18, 2010

cmoj, I apologize for responding so rudely. For someone to dismiss existential issues (or concerns, or even despair) really does hit a nerve with me. But I shouldn't have indulged my immediate emotional reaction.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:28 PM on March 18, 2010

Acerock: I agree that it's important to look into all areas. I'm not sure if they acknowledged that such things as depression may transcend natural selection. Natural selection is about the mechanism in which biological organisms have managed to survive. It doesn't necessarily say anything about the meaning of life, existential issues, or philosophy. Yet those things are very relevant to mental illness. I'm not sure if they addressed the issue of if depression even exists in nature; do we have evidence of depression existing outside our recent times, artificial situations, or situations that are irrelevant to reproduction?
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 12:00 AM on March 19, 2010

You've beaten existential despair? Please to be sending instructions.

Have you tried insight meditation? If so, and it didn't help, what steps did you take to make sure you were doing it correctly and how long did you do it for?
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 12:54 AM on March 19, 2010

Crabby Appleton, (eponysterical) I don't mean to dismiss existential issues. I think I can see why you thought that's what I was saying though. IJust because they don't exist doesn't mean they're not real.

Sorry, it's a hard thing to talk about with words.
posted by cmoj at 9:57 AM on March 19, 2010

I meant to say in the first place that I have definitely experienced existential despair, and definitely don't want to deny or disparage the pain and terror that can come from that. I wanted to say that I think that questioning one's own existence and purpose at a basic level seems pretty necessary to me. Seeing that you can choose to interpret your own insignificance and purposelessness as either total oppression or total freedom is a big first step toward trying to understand reality, the self, and all kinds of things. That's what I meant about the problem not existing. I say all of this in terms of necessity because you've got to have a problem before you go looking for answers.
posted by cmoj at 10:09 AM on March 19, 2010

It's an interesting perspective. Our genes don't care about our happiness. So we're not necessarily meant to be outright happy.
But I have a hard time seeing the evolutionary advantages of severe chronic depression. Maybe the writer should have used a different term.
posted by joost de vries at 10:55 AM on March 20, 2010

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