Students of evolution have long wondered which psychological profiles provide an evolutionary advantage to an individual, group, or species, a question whose complexity is compounded in the study of human history by the observation that many of those who have achieved notable successes within societies — and who have survived to pass along their genetic material — nevertheless evidence major psychological weaknesses and pathologies in their psyches. In other words, what might be evolutionarily limiting, even fatal, for a species, may seem to be beneficial, at least in the short term, for individuals and families….This line of questioning has lead some psychologists to wonder whether certain psychological pathologies, despite being being exactly that — illnesses to be combated — are nevertheless a form of the human animal trying to help itself become healthier by prompting a self-healing reaction. The excerpt below summarizes an article which discusses some of research being done in this fascinating area of enquiry, focusing on depression as viewed through this theory: depression as a state in which the body is trying to tell an individual to take therapeutic steps toward healing his or her own life.
By Drake Baer
New York Magazine
February 9, 2017
Depression is pervasive: In 2015, about 16 million — or 6.7 percent of — American adults had a major depressive episode in the past year. Major depression takes the most years off of American lives and accounts for the most years lived with disability of any mental or behavioral disorder. It is also expensive: From 1999 to 2012, the percentage of Americans on antidepressants rose from an estimated 6.8 to 12 percent. The global depression drug market is slated to be worth over $16 billion by 2020.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines a major depressive episode as “a period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image.” This falls in line with what Matthew Hutson, in a new feature for Nautilus, describes as the disease model of depression: that depression is “a breakdown, a flaw in the system, something to be remedied and moved past.” In his compelling and challenging piece, Hutson profiles several researchers who advance an argument that depression can serve a possibly positive purpose in the lens of evolution. But rather than deifying evolution and trying to scry out what it meant for us, let’s focus on what’s more immediately useful for lived human lives today: that, in some circumstances, depression may be, in the arc of a life, yielding of insights and personal meaning. All of this is in no way meant to minimize the suffering that depression can cause — but to suggest the uses that it may serve.
At the center of Hutson’s piece is Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada. Andrews argues that depression may be “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” He sees it in the condition’s bouquet of symptoms, which include “anhedonia,” or an inability to feel much pleasure; people who are depressed ruminate frequently, often in spirals; and they get more REM sleep, a phase associated with memory consolidation. This reflects an evolutionary design, the argument goes, one that’s to, as Hutson summarizes, “pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.” Like, say, a “failed” relationship. The episode, then, is a sort of altered state, one different from the hum of daily life, one that’s supposed to get you to pay attention to whatever wounding led to the upset. For example, 80 percent of subjects in a 61-person study of depression found that they perceived some benefit from rumination, mostly assessing problems and preventing future mistakes….
….This framing of depression as a space for reflection is empowering, and lends a degree of agency to the person being pressed down. Like anxiety, depression might be trying to tell you something. The language of therapeutic traditions is useful: a Jungian analyst would describe depression as katabasis, an Ancient Greek word for descent. Like Orpheus heading to Hades or Luke Skywalker in the swamps of Dagobah, it’s a journey into the underworld, where the adventurer is to “go through the door … immerse himself in the wound, and exit from his old life through it,” like [sic] Robert Bly writes in Iron John. Since it is subjective, the problems and solutions will be personal — of the person and their particular psychological history — and thus demand the individualized understanding of the sufferer of depression, perhaps with the assistance of a skilled therapist. That’s another theme: While disengagement from emotionality characterizes depression and other disorders, engagement with one’s inner world looks to to be the way out. Put more poetically: You exit through the wound.
Most episodes of depression end on their own — something known as spontaneous remission,” Vanderbilt psychologist Steven Hollon tells Nautilus, noting that the depression-as-adaptation narrative may explain why. Indeed, “cognitive behavioral and problem-solving therapies may work precisely because they tap into and accelerate — in a matter of weeks — the very processes that have evolved to occur over the space of months,” he added. Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.