Depression is Adaptive

Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2023

At first this chapter seems like mere introspection, a collection of subjective anecdotes drawn from my life experiences. Such has no place in a book that emphasizes science. However, I read an article in Scientific American that confirms my observations, right down the line. So I believe this topic has a place in science, along side Newton's laws of motion, and Einstein's general relativity. It is also important, for us as individuals, and for the structure of our society as a whole.

The counterintuitive hypothesis is: depression is adaptive. Really? Such an awful emotion is adaptive? Depression is so debilitating - how could it possibly confer a survival advantage?

To clarify, I am referring to situational depression here, not clinical depression. Clinical depression is a chemical imbalance, wherein the patient is depressed for no external reason. Others might look on and say, “You're life is great - what's the problem?” This is a serious medical condition that requires our empathy and understanding, and new forms of treatment. However, I believe most instances of depression in America are situational, not clinical - i.e. a natural response to a boatload of stress that never ends.

Is situational depression adaptive? Many traits, both physical and emotional, were adaptive 20 thousand years ago, but are counterproductive today. The obvious example is eating everything in sight. That was the correct strategy for millions of years, when food was sporadic and unpredictable, but now, with grocery stores full of food, concentrated food like dingdongs and twinkies, this trait works against us, and we must resist it every day. With this backdrop, let's see how depression might confer an advantage in a hunter-gatherer society.

Depression is a mechanism of focus; we focus on a problem, and search for a solution. It has evolved into a form of emotional pain; we simply MUST solve the problem. Let's look at an example.

Someone is making advances towards your mate. You love her, at some level, since love is another adaptive emotion. (I suppose every emotion is adaptive, or it wouldn't be there.) Your rival is bigger and stronger, and you are at risk of losing your mate, thus depression. You pace around in a funk, depressed about your situation. This behavior has been seen in great apes in the wild. Even a bird is deeply troubled when his mate is taken away, flitting about and chirping loudly. When faced with this impending crisis, you're not just depressed, you're also thinking. He's stronger, but could you take him if you had the element of surprise? Could you kill him in the night? If not, should you try to find another mate? Perhaps another woman in the tribe, or maybe you should move to another tribe. You are weighing all these options without words, just images and thoughts, as you pace about. Depression is an emotion that helps you focus on a problem and solve it. Nay, it forces you to focus on a problem and solve it, the way physical pain might force you to favor a sprained ankle until it heals.

With considerable time for introspection, I've seen this in myself. I might be depressed about something for several days, but during that time I come up with a couple of things to try. I won't call them solutions necessarily, but at least there is something to try. And when I try something, I feel a little better, as though depression had done what it was suppose to do. Thus, situational depression can be advantageous, even today.

This is how Wendy and I play the lava game, isn't it? We stand on our cushion, horrified by the sea of lava all around us. We're so depressed we can hardly think, can't cook dinner, can't do dishes, can't do anything at all except watch tv, and yet we are thinking about our problems, over and over and over again. Perhaps we come up with a new idea, the next cushion far away, and we jump. We hold hands and jump, and even as we are flying through the air, unsure of the landing, at least we are trying something, and our depression eases just a bit.

Like overeating, depression isn't always advantageous in the modern age. We can spend months, or years, in depression; it wasn't like that in the past. Your problem would be solved in a few days, one way or another. If you decided to fight your rival, your problem might be solved by your death. Or you would win, or find another mate, but in any case it would be resolved. In the present, problems aren't solved quickly, and depression can continue for years. In some ways, this is an unintended scourge of our intelligence. You might project that 20 years from now, you will run out of savings, with social security woefully inadequate. You picture yourself homeless and hungry, and there may or may not be a safety net, depending on where you live. You have 20 years to ponder this impending train-wreck, and there might not be much you can do about it. A chimpanzee has no ability to dread the future in this manner, as we do today.

Chronic depression is so strong, it can lead to despair, learned helplessness, or addiction. Speaking of the latter, let's look ad meds, both prescribed and illegal.

A friend on prescription meds said, “It doesn't make me happy, it just makes me numb. But that's better than crying all day long, or falling into an anxiety attack.” Fair enough. I wonder though, if you're numb, are you inclined to look for solutions? We have short-circuited the system that evolution has put in place. Well if your spouse has died, there is no solution! Nothing you do is going to bring her back. Take whatever you need to get through the day - no questions asked. However, in other situations it's a fine line. You want to land somewhere between helpless crying, and sitting like a calm zombie, so that you have both the motivation and the ability to solve problems. Perhaps meds can keep you in this sweet-spot, I don't know. Still, you aren't happy, and won't be happy, until the stress is relieved.

Illegal drugs are never the answer, because they push you too far into zombieland. A friend of mine said, “Even heroin, the king of all drugs, didn't take my problems away. I could still see them, right there in front of me, I was just too high to care. Then, when I came off of it, there was still no solution, so the depression returned with a vengeance, and I wanted back on as soon as possible.” Instead of stigmatizing and criminalizing addiction, why don't we address the shortfalls in our society that cause the stress and depression in the first place? Isn't that obvious?

As for me, I haven't tried prescription meds yet, partly because I have to solve problems almost every day. We're always jumping from one cushion to the next - so it has been for twelve years. I don't know if I could play the lava game properly, and carry my family to safety, if I was “comfortably numb”. Still, 12 years is a long time; I might give the meds a whirl some day.

In lieu of meds, there's exercise, and the follow-on bath, which is free, and has only positive side effects, but that lift only lasts a couple hours.

Then there is introspection. I try to step outside of myself, out into that meta world where I look and my brain and my thoughts from a far away place. I marvel at how this has all been shaped by a million years of evolution, how it all fits together if you look at it through the right lens. It's amazing, and a little bit beautiful. If I can get far enough away, then I am analyzing the depression instead of feeling it. It becomes a fascinating aspect of evolutionary biology, rather than a force that keeps me curled up under a blanket. That works for an hour or so, then it's back to the grind.

Other activities, like programming edbrowse, solving interesting math problems, and writing this book, also help.