Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why Can't We Be Sad?



Today's New York Times Magazine has a really interesting article by Jonah Lehrer called "Depression's Upside." Mr. Lehrer talks about a possible evolutionary purpose for Major Depression.

Mr. Lehrer writes:

The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.

So I didn't like the article at the beginning; it relied on anecdotes--the woman who felt so much better with antidepressants that she'd grown complacent in a bad marriage, for example. It doesn't capture all the patients I see, and any way you dice it, if you end up dead from suicide, your productivity comes to a halt. It seems to me that there are some people who suffer in ways that these anecdotes don't explain. I suppose, however, even if we assume that depression is an unproductive, tormenting state, when it ends, is there something to be gained from having gone through it. Lehrer tells us, "Wisdom isn't cheap, and we pay for it with pain." I, personally, think there remains a differentiation between pain and major depression, and that perhaps one can grow through all sorts of suffering, and I'm all in favor of finding my own personal path to wisdom in ways that might not entail so much suffering. Just a thought.

But I ultimately, I liked the article because Lehrer, while clearly a proponent of the "don't mess with evolution, less drugs, please," school of thought, presents a balanced view. He gives Peter Kramer (
Listening to Prozac) a voice, and talks about the objections to the viewpoint he puts forth. He describes a theory that depression is evolutionarily helpful because of the ruminative nature of the illness. He also cues us in that this is just one explanatory theory which remains unproven, and there are others. Lehrer continues:

Other scientists, including Randolph Nesse at the University of Michigan, say that complex psychiatric disorders like depression rarely have simple evolutionary explanations. In fact, the analytic-rumination hypothesis is merely the latest attempt to explain the prevalence of depression. There is, for example, the “plea for help” theory, which suggests that depression is a way of eliciting assistance from loved ones. There’s also the “signal of defeat” hypothesis, which argues that feelings of despair after a loss in social status help prevent unnecessary attacks; we’re too busy sulking to fight back. And then there’s “depressive realism”: several studies have found that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality and are better at predicting future outcomes. While each of these speculations has scientific support, none are sufficient to explain an illness that afflicts so many people. The moral, Nesse says, is that sadness, like happiness, has many functions.

The article finishes off with the idea that people in depressive states are better thinkers, they notice more, they work better. He talks about a study that shows that on gloomy days with dismal music playing, shoppers notice more trinkets by the cash register. Gloomy weather and oppressive music might set a low mood tone, but this seems a far cry from an episode of major depression, and not something that is generalizable to anything more than clouds and music and trinkets. There's a second study mentioned of undergrads doing an abstract reasoning test that shows people with a "negative mood" perform or focus better; again, it falls short of being a comparison for major depression. The shrinks among us find it hard to imagine that 'negative moods' and Major Depression are all that linked. Everyone has negative moods. Not everyone has major depression.

What about the studies that link mood disorders and creative tendencies? This does seem likely, and we're left to wonder (my own thoughts, not the article) if the intense experience of an episode of mood disturbance either fuels creativity by feeding it material or requiring a release, or if the genetics are wired such that mood disorders and artistic talents might be coded near one another.

You thoughts?