Depression’s Evolutionary Roots

Prozac, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibit...

“Two scientists suggest that depression is not a malfunction, but a mental adaptation that brings certain cognitive advantages”. (Scientific American) Evolutionary explanations are appealing, for if depression were not adaptive then why would it be so prevalent across cultures and epochs? Estimates are that between one quarter and one half of the public are clinically depressed at some point in their life.

The suggestion here is that the depressive state, with ruminative thinking, social isolation, and loss of interest in usually pleasurable activities, etc. promotes periods of uninterrupted analytical thinking. This turns some of the therapeutic approaches to depression on their head. Interventions which discourage ruminative thinking might prolong the resolution of a depressive episode. Patients encouraged to amplify on their ruminating, such as journalling, might do better. Perhaps even antidepressant medications might interfere in constructive problem-solving?

I have thought there might be a different evolutionary advantage to depression. After a loss or setback, the depressed person’s lack of energy, motivation and activity act to conserve resources. Their way of thinking about the world, with pessimism and a helpless sense of lack of control over what befalls one, might be more realistic, at least at such a time.

Is Patriotism a Subconscious Way for Humans to Avoid Disease?

Taken by Apollo 8 crewmember Bill Anders on De...

A number of scientists argue that we have a so-called ‘behavioral immune system’ that functions to protect us against strangers who might carry germs against which we have no immunity. (Discover)

I have long believed that tribalism is inborn, but I had focused mostly on the cognitive limits of reciprocity and trust. This is another, intriguing, idea.

Hold Your Head Up. A Blush Just Shows You Care


“We are this hypersocial species that settles conflicts and misunderstandings face to face, and we need a way to repair daily betrayals and transgressions quickly…”

In a series of recent studies, psychologists have found that reddening cheeks soften others’ judgments of bad or clumsy behavior, and help to strengthen social bonds rather that strain them. If nothing else, the new findings should take some of the personal sting out of the facial fire shower when it inevitably hits.’ (New York Times )


Why do people cook?

“…[W]ith Homo sapiens, what makes the species unique in Dr Wrangham’s opinion is that its food is so often cooked.

Cooking is a human universal. No society is without it. No one other than a few faddists tries to survive on raw food alone. And the consumption of a cooked meal in the evening, usually in the company of family and friends, is normal in every known society. Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (which consumes 20-25% of the body’s energy) could not keep running. Dr Wrangham thus believes that cooking and humanity are coeval.

In fact, as he outlined to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Chicago, he thinks that cooking and other forms of preparing food are humanity’s “killer app”: the evolutionary change that underpins all of the other—and subsequent—changes that have made people such unusual animals.” via The Economist.

One more in the myriad attempted definitions of being human that go, “Man is the only animal who…” Here is a Google search on the meme of human uniqueness.


How novels help drive social evolution

‘Boehm and Carroll believe novels have the same effect as the cautionary tales told in older societies. “Just as hunter-gatherers talk of cheating and bullying as a way of staying keyed to the goal that the bad guys must not win, novels key us to the same issues,” says Boehm. “They have a function that continues to contribute to the quality and structure of group life.”

“Maybe storytelling – from TV to folk tales – actually serves some specific evolutionary function,” says Gottschall. “They’re not just by-products of evolutionary adaptation.” ‘

via New Scientist.

Is it really bad to be sad?

“…Misery is inconvenient, unpleasant, and in a society where personal happiness is prized above all else, there is little tolerance for wallowing in despair. Especially now we’ve got drugs for it. …So it’s no surprise that more and more people are taking them.

But is this really such a good idea? A growing number of cautionary voices from the world of mental health research are saying it isn’t. They fear that the increasing tendency to treat normal sadness as if it were a disease is playing fast and loose with a crucial part of our biology. Sadness, they argue, serves an evolutionary purpose – and if we lose it, we lose out.

“When you find something this deeply in us biologically, you presume that it was selected because it had some advantage, otherwise we wouldn’t have been burdened with it,” says Jerome Wakefield, a clinical social worker at New York University and co-author of The Loss of Sadness: How psychiatry transformed normal sorrow into depressive disorder (with Allan Horwitz, Oxford University Press, 2007). “We’re fooling around with part of our biological make-up.”

Perhaps, then, it is time to embrace our miserable side. Yet many psychiatrists insist not. Sadness has a nasty habit of turning into depression, they warn. Even when people are sad for good reason, they should be allowed to take drugs to make themselves feel better if that’s what they want.

So who is right? Is sadness something we can live without or is it a crucial part of the human condition?

…there are lots of ideas about why our propensity to feel sad might have evolved. It may be a self-protection strategy, as it seems to be among other primates that show signs of sadness. …it helps us learn from our mistakes. …even full-blown depression may save us from the effects of long-term stress. Without taking time out to reflect, he says, “you might stay in a state of chronic stress until you’re exhausted or dead”. …By acting sad, we tell other community members that we need support….Then there is the notion that creativity is connected to dark moods. …There is also evidence that too much happiness can be bad for your career…” (More)

via New Scientist.

Posting articles on this theme is, readers may have noticed, a recurrent event here on FmH. I began to be introduced to this notion, that depression might serve a useful purpose and that we had to rethink our knee-jerk readiness to vanquish it (and normal sadness as well, which is difficult to disentangle from pathological depression) whenever we encountered it, early in my career. I think it has fundamentally informed my skepticism about the way we organize and administer psychiatric services in this society. In addition, there are concerns that too readily resorting to antidepressant therapy may reinforce future propensity for depressive reactions and need for medication (which I’m sure will please the pharmaceutical industry to hear). I have always said that getting people off of medications, or refraining from prescribing them, are equally important functions of a psychopharmacologist as is prescribing astutely.

Auto Anthropomorphism

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Human Or Animal Faces Associated With At Least 90 Percent Of Cars By One-third Of Population: “Do people attribute certain personality traits or emotions to car fronts? If so, could this have implications for driving and pedestrian behavior? Truls Thorstensen (EFS Consulting Vienna), Karl Grammer (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Urban Ethology) and other researchers at the University of Vienna joined economic interest with evolutionary psychology to answer these questions.

The research project investigates our perception of automotive designs, and whether and how these findings correspond to the perception of human faces.

Throughout evolution, humans have developed an ability to collect information on people’s sex, age, emotions, and intentions by looking at their faces. The authors suggest that this ability is probably widely used on other living beings and maybe even on inanimate objects, such as cars. Although this theory has been proposed by other authors, it has not yet been investigated systematically. The researchers therefore asked people to report the characteristics, emotions, personality traits, and attitudes that they ascribed to car fronts and then used geometric morphometrics to calculate the corresponding shape information.

One-third of the subjects associated a human or animal face with at least 90 percent of the cars. All subjects marked eyes (headlights), a mouth (air intake/grille), and a nose in more than 50 percent of the cars. Overall, people agreed which type of car possesses certain traits. The authors found that people liked cars most which had a wide stance, a narrow windshield, and/or widely spaced, narrow headlights. The better the subjects liked a car, the more it bore shape characteristics corresponding to high values of what the authors termed “power”, indicating that both men and women like mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking cars.” (Science Daily)

I’m glad that’s settled. I have always, since I was a child, seen facial expressions on the fronts of cars and ascribed an emotional valence to each one. I always wondered how common that was. Up to now, my only clue was that my daughter once commented that she saw cars that way as well. It makes evolutionary sense, given the importance of figuring out what stance to take vis a vis an approaching stranger. The machinery of facial recognition takes up a disproportionate volume of the cortex. In fact, I have previously written here about the accumulating evidence that those with autism process human faces with their object-recognition circuitry, not the facial-recognition areas. This anthropomorphism is in a way the flip side of the coin. (I wonder if people with autism see facial expressions in cars…)