Is Depression an Evolutionary Adaptation?

In a 2009 article published in Scientific America, the authors Paul Andrews and J Thompson proposed that depression is an evolutionary adaptation. Their argument was primarily based on the presence of a gene in the brain called the 5HT1A receptor, which binds to a well known neurotransmitter called serotonin. It is a popular theory that low serotonin production in the brain is associated with depression.

The authors of the article seemed to suggest that people who suffer from depression have evolved to solve complex problems at the expense of their well being and personal relationships, with one of a evidences presented being the observed reduction of depressed symptoms in rodents missing the 5HT1A receptor, this is because the 5HT1A receptor in rodents is 99% similar to that in humans. Furthermore the authors state that the next generation of antidepressants are being designed to target the 5HT1A receptor.

As a therapist I have mixed feelings about this theory. First, I believe it’s true that we have evolved to solve complex problems, and I believe that feelings of sadness, fear, disappointment are good negative feelings that we have evolved to experience in order for us to learn important lessons about getting our needs met and surviving. Secondly, I believe that depression is a consequence that occurs when we refuse to accept negative feelings in our lives and acknowledge difficult truths.

In the article, the authors cite a study, where they observed the mood of research subjects when solving complex problems like a math equation. The authors reported that the more depressed the subjects were, during the test, the higher their scores were.

It does make sense that anyone who is focused on solving a problem would become less sociable, experience less joy and overall present with a serious affect. However I don’t believe that this is considered depression.

Depression is anger turned inwards, this occurs when we buy into messages that tell us we must feel good as often as possible, and that not feeling good is a bad thing. When in fact, our feelings are like temperature gauges, they inform us of how well things are going our way or otherwise, in regards to getting our needs met.

When we fight against the messages our minds relay to us about the world outside of our heads, our minds fight back. When we experience inner turmoil, we are likely to go into shut down mode. This is usually evidenced by not following through on dire commitments despite consequences, and chronic lethargy.

In summary I believe that our feelings are an evolutionary adaptation, for problem solving, to include serving as cues for encoding information into long term memory, and memory is important for problem solving, (think frames of reference). Depression on the other hand, is a natural and logical consequence of what happens when we chronically refuse to accept our difficult feelings.

Furthermore, I do agree with the author’s encouragement for rumination. I do encourage clients to ruminate and document their thoughts, with one condition, that they accept and practice making peace with their fears.

Some months ago, I wrote a detailed post on  types and causes  of depression, you can check out the post here, and you can read the Scientific America article here.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC, a professional counseling and life coaching private practice.

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