Dark clouds and their silver linings

Photo by Flickr user s~revenge. Click for sourceThe New York Times has a thought-provoking article on the possible advantages of depression, suggesting that the negative form of thinking associated with depression may encourage people to focus on their problems to help them solve the life dilemmas that have contributed to their low mood.

The piece explores the idea that rumination, the constant mental re-running of worrying thoughts and concerns, might be a form of self-imposed problem solving that has been evolutionary selected as an adaptive reaction to unfortunate situations.

This hypothesis was suggested by psychologist Paul Andrews and psychiatrist Andrew Thomson and The New York Times piece is largely based on their recently published paper which outlines how many studies have found depressed people are better at solving certain sorts of problems.

One difficulty with their proposal, however, is that while they admit that social problems are one of the most common triggers for depression, they miss out the many studies that have found depressed people and, especially depressed people who ruminate, are reliably worse at social problem solving.

It’s probably also worth saying that depression is not a single entity. Despite there currently being a single diagnosis of ‘major depression’ in reality the problem can range from a few weeks of feeling out of sorts to suicidal despair to a seemingly complete shutdown of body and mind in a state of catatonia.

Evolutionary explanations of psychiatric disorders always sit slightly uncomfortably because its not clear exactly what is being selected for because it’s not clear exactly what we’re talking about.

However, the article has clearly stimulated a great deal of interest, and the author, science writer Jonah Lehrer, tackles some of the feedback on his blog.

Link to NYT piece ‘Depression‚Äôs Upside’.

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