I came across the following article on Digg.com and thought that it was highly debatable and surely interesting enough to share. I remember the taste of a mild depression when my family relocated to Northern California between my sophomore and junior years of high school. Although I initiated the transition with a constructive, growth-seeking outlook, the adjustment at first caused me to feel a bit on the downside for the better half of a year. Lucky to have parents whom I could feel comfortable communicating with, I often expressed my feelings to them, making the experience at least palpable.
Besides the confidence that getting through the depression afforded me well into my future life challenges, I could say that the major upside to the down experience was that for the first time in my life I began to listen and pay attention to my thoughts (as negative as they were.) Looking back on it now, I realize that the depression essentially caused me to be aware of being aware...
Newsweek - "Happiness has had a tough time of it lately. The backlash against the seemingly endless stream of books about the subject (Amazon returned 426,789 titles when I used that search term, including one that calls happiness "life's most important skill") had already set in last year. At the time, I pointed out that "among people with late-stage illnesses, those with the greatest sense of well-being were more likely to die in any given period of time than the mildly content were. Being 'up' all the time can cause you to play down very real threats," and channeled the arguments of scholars who lamented the medicalization of the normal human emotion of sadness. (Click here to follow Sharon Begley)
These and other critiques of happiness and the happiness industry, however, came mostly from psychologists, philosophers, and sociologists who are concerned about the effect of a message that says modest levels of well-being aren't enough, and that we all practically have a duty to be really, really happy—and that what was once considered normal sadness is something to be smothered, even shunned. I was therefore interested to see a new scientific paper taking a more brain-based perspective. (My thanks to The Psych Student blog for drawing my attention to it.)
Writing in the journal Psychological Review, postdoctoral fellow Paul Andrews of Virginia Commonwealth University and psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson Jr. of the University of Virginia present research suggesting that depression is present in the species, and in individuals, for a purpose, and we're playing with fire if we try to eradicate it. In evolution-speak, depression is an "adaptation," they argue. That is, it evolved because it made individuals who experienced it fitter, under natural selection, than individuals who did not experience it. Andrews and Thomson—who is best known for research on the psychology of religious belief, and who has also studied whether antidepressants threaten love and fidelity—offer as evidence the presence of a molecule in the brain called the 5HT1A receptor. This serves as a docking port for the neurochemical serotonin, which the Prozac/Zoloft/Paxil class of antidepressants targets. Human brains are not the only ones with the 5HT1A receptor. Rats also have it.
Here's the really interesting part: the rat version is 99 percent identical to the human one. This suggests that in the evolution from the shared ancestor of rats and people (hold those creationism letters!), natural selection did not mess with the receptor much. That leave-well-enough-alone history tends to happen when the function of some trait is so important that tinkering with it evolutionarily would produce more harm than good. What kind of harm? Rodents that have a mutation causing them to lose this receptor exhibit fewer symptoms of depression when they suffer some stress, a 1998 paper reported. In other words, losing the receptor that promotes depression in response to stress is something evolution thought would be a very bad move. Ergo: depression is not something to be thrown out lightly.
Why not? Because, argue Andrews and Thomson, depression alters thinking and behavior in beneficial ways. For instance:
*People in the grip of depression tend to ruminate, to turn an issue over and over in the mind. If they're ruminating on why they can't get a date, that might seem bad—since it keeps the person depressed. But this way of thinking, note the scientists, is "often highly analytical." That can be useful, producing solutions to what tipped the person into depression in the first place, not to mention "Eureka!" moments such as discovering fire. Evidence: people who felt depressed before tackling challenging math problems tend to score higher than happier test-takers, Andrews and Thomson reported in a 2007 study.
*Depression tends to focus thinking. That 5HT1A receptor, it turns out, also supplies neurons with fuel, allowing them to fire without flagging. That includes neurons in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which have to fire continuously to keep the mind from wandering. (It's an attention circuit.) Focused thinking, like analytical thinking, might help someone overcome depression.
*Depression tends to make sufferers seek isolation, and keeps them from deriving pleasure from sex, food, or life itself. Obviously this can be crippling (and even fatal) to the sufferer. But it may also be adaptive: these behaviors foster the kind of focused and deliberative thinking that might solve the problem that triggered the depression in the first place. Evidence: a 2006 study found that when people suffering from depression engage in expressive writing, which forces them to focus on their troubles, their depression tends to lift sooner than otherwise. A 2008 study reached the same conclusion... Continue reading the entire article here