Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description. — William Styron
Behavioral norms and stereotypes often stigmatize or prematurely dismiss complex maladies such as depression. For example, mentioning depression in certain company can imply failure. The depressed individual may also be perceived as experiencing a lack of motivation, or possessing the inability to obtain a proper perspective on life’s vicissitudes. However, it’s the colloquial descriptions of depression (e.g., “having the blues”) that should not be confused with clinical depression, and clinical depression is not generally alleviated by blaming the victim.
Exploring the idea of there being an evolutionary advantage to depression could explain how, in some cases, the process of contemplative brooding can result in adaptive resolution. According to some speculations promulgated by evolutionary psychologists, the genetic proclivity for an individual to succumb to depression may indicate a type of (counterintuitive) selective advantage—theoretically described as the analytical rumination hypothesis (ARH). Keep in mind that most justification for the ARH model is based on the statistical prevalence of depression (Scientific American states that 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric criteria for Major Depressive Disorder at sometime during their lives). Perhaps depression can be seen as an ipso facto opportunity for the brain to adapt to misfortune, but not in a way that benefits the species as an overall evolutionary adaptation. After all, depression is a costly defense mechanism with disabling effects on one’s ability to function and survive—not to mention the potential consequences of suicidal behavior or substance abuse. Even if a protective impetus is initiated by the symptomatic nature of depression as an adaptive response (i.e., psychosocial “hibernation”), it would not be as adaptively useful as one’s ability to overcome depression. Since the empirical evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavior therapy in treating depression is good, this suggests that neurological plasticity via salutogenic priming plays a significant role in reversing the pernicious effects of this disorder. In other words, the learned therapeutic skills one employs to battle depression may increase the likelihood of recognizing it’s emergence in the future. This reflective capacity may also reduce the potential of being victimized by severe depression later on if the experience of adaptively processing negative thought patterns is committed to episodic memory.
It should be noted that the causes of depression are as debated as the prescribed treatments. Furthermore, a combination of biological and environmental factors for depression are often equally involved in unquantifiable ratios. In fact, recent studies have shown that serotonin levels have less to do with depression’s actual effects as does the reduction in neurogenesis, changes in neuronal connections, relentless stress, long-term anxiety, and psychological disillusionment.
The phenomenology of depression has been the topic of many poems, books, paintings, musical compositions, and artistic endeavors. Michael Foucault, Ernest Hemingway, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Sylvia Plath are just a few of the notable figures who have suffered from disillusion-based depression (sometimes described as intellectual depression). William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness is filled with caliginous metaphorical allusions attempting to describe the visceral experience of Major Depressive Disorder. Similarly, the British biologist Lewis Wolpert vividly recounts his bout with depression in a partly autobiographical and scientifically informative investigation entitled Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression.
Counteracting the effects of depression requires a comprehensive therapeutic approach with additional pharmacological intervention when necessary. The important thing to remember is that depression is a complicated abnormality and no two individuals will necessarily respond to treatment in predictable ways. The more we learn about depression, the more we may discover the brain’s capacity for developing resilience in the wake of adversity.
(This article originally appeared as Depression: A Silver Lining? in the NPI newsletter, Summer edition, 2012).