Recently I’ve been thinking about, among other things, the evolutionary purpose of depression. What I mean is that, as far as I’m aware, all things be them in the cognitive, affective or psychomotor domain evolved for a reason; our eyes evolved face front to see ahead, our hands, prehensile, evolved to grab, fight, feed, our emotions evolved in brilliant ways concomitant with our bodies and minds.
In some cases in evolution we have, “phenotypic [characteristics that are byproducts] of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection,” called spandrels. Sometimes a spandrel is very useful; sometimes a spandrel is useless; sometimes a spandrel is harmful.
Paul Ekman, in his book, “Emotional Awareness,” poses the idea of the mood being a harmful spandrel and I don’t disagree with him. To paraphrase he suggests that when we are in a mood we are biologically inclined to seek out that which reinforces the mood we are in (different from the refractory period of an emotion we are feeling where Ekman states that we are biologically incapable of accepting information that is contrary to the emotion we are feeling) and this is dangerous and harmful. Moreover he expounds on its danger stating that, for example, being in a frightened mood we are less likely to accept stimuli that will not harm us and, consequentially, we are likely to project fear onto it fallaciously.
I had, upon my first moments of this idea, felt that depression may just be an evolutionary spandrel; an accidental byproduct of our ability to feel and was harmful and useless.
However, when discussing the theory of depression’s evolutionary purpose with some friends produced 22 2-6 page emails my mind was changed. Later, a few of the internet searches produced some good fruit on the subject that also convinced me otherwise. Scientific American had an article on the subject posing the idea that depression does have a purpose and like the, “vertebrate eye – [it is] an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.” The function they posed was that depression allowed the person to have a higher analytical focus that provided them the ability to drown out external distraction; insomnia gets rid of sleep so as to stay conscious and ruminate, loss of appetite excludes digestion’s requirement for energy, solitude excludes the distraction of people etc.
Wikipedia too, I found, had an exhaustive list of evolutionary theory regarding depression.
It was, though, in those emails between friends that a larger and greater understanding arose.
Before I was to find the evolutionary purpose behind depression I first must find a succinct and apt definition of depression. It was in a friend’ email response that this definition arose. The email is here, posted in full… As an experienced practitioner of depression, I felt that it was by far the most outstanding explanation of depression I’ve ever read.
(The follow up posts to this one will include a theory of depression and how it relates to Csikszentmihalyi‘s idea of the psychology of flow and how manic depression may, too, fall within the lines of flow psychology. I am posting only this now to allow for some, so to speak, depressive rumination on the subject. The references that are mentioned in the email are hyperlinked…)
“I considered the blog both accurate and adequate expression; because of its familiarity I was able to relate my own host of inner experiences to the examples offered thus, not requiring the blogger to be discursive. The blog is not an explanation of depression, but it is an explication to those already in the know.
You will not understand ‘depression’ approaching it as a thing. Depression is a person and, as such, is as many dissertations as there are disciples experiencing it. You can not divorce the experience from the spiritual entity that ‘is’ depression as it is happening, anymore than you can hope to define any processes of a soul. As any reality, depression will be unique to everyone, while there will be enough overlapping of that reality for one depressive to reciprocate the experience of another, without having to ‘know’ it, clinically parsed-out and fissiperated.
–How about depression with a reason?
Depression with a cause or reason I would term ‘grief.’ Even the general state of the world or the vagary ‘life/existence’ can be sited as incitement for this state of grief. But a depressive can not site a specific cause, which would make the dilemma accessible and a soluble matter. The depressive does not have this access to resolution. It could be described as an imbalanced chemical state–the depressive doesn’t know, can’t tell you, and will credulously try any pill, and another, anything just to see. Because anything would be better than the incapacitating apathy.
–Are you saying depression without reason is “non-functioning”?
Depression is compromised functioning. You can’t find the motivation to ‘do’ because you can’t ‘care’ and you don’t know how to care to do or how you ever cared, or when or if you ever can or should care again.
Now, this might enable that highly focused state described in the S.A. article, but I consider that the residual effect of one’s inability to engage with the concerns of the world at large. Your narrowed focus is the subsistance cognition of a person who has lost connection to the pursuits of others that do illustrate a caring interest in engagements which the depressive either no longer comprehends or respects or wishes any association to personally. What makes such a depression non-suicidal is one’s ability to summon some belief in a someday change. It’s a dark ember that’s the distinguishing line.
A whimpered ‘why’ becomes the engrossing, all-encompassing insurmountable question.
From the vantage point of being within the experience you can not identify a ‘function’ of/for it. Within the moment, it is entirely self-defeating and livelihood threatening. If you can still manage to care about yourself and how you are seen by others you will manage at the last and latest possible moment to salvage your circumstances to the extent of going out and earning that money that will provide for your ability to maintain the baseline of couchsitting-afterwork-oblivion. Maybe the depression will let go, but you can not shake it off, because it is you.
–Maybe this particular problem was really bothering her in ways she wasn’t aware of.
A quote from the book of [a friend]: “I didn’t know I was depressed until I wasn’t.”
Another notion: it’s loss of that inertia that keeps us going even when we don’t care for little fits of time. it’s, socially and privately, falling so far behind you have only the suffering to look forward to of every second spent trying to catch up, and why it takes so long to ‘try’ again, if ever. Ever had dreams in which you’ve fallen so far behind at something you are loath to engage in the effort, because it just seems so futile?
A whimpered “what’s the point” becomes the engrossing, all-encompassing answer of the depressive aware of no relation to a world that has no relation to you, that evinces such sparse integrity of purpose or cause for respect, or reason for you to desire to participate ever again.
The ‘non-suicidal’ depressive abides, the ‘suicidal’ kills something in everyone around them.”