Depression: Is There an Evolutionary Advantage?

Depression: Is There an Evolutionary Advantage?

Dr. Friedman: Is Depression Advantageous?


The NYT featured an interesting essay on evolutionary biology, behavior, and depression. The basic premise of the article is that many researchers are currently fixated on the idea that evolutionary biology guides actions and is responsible for many illnesses, but that illnesses like depression don’t fit into this mold because there often isn’t a silver lining.

Dr. Richard Friedman, the MD who wrote the article, illustrated his point by first recognizing that certain studies have demonstrated that patients who are sadder may have better judgment than those who are not; however, he continued by pointing out that the thought patterns of depressed patients are nothing to “embrace,” but something that should be addressed because the thinking of the individuals is often distorted. He continues by weighing in on the health risks associated with severe depression.

I agree that depression is something that must be taken seriously, but find fault a little bit with the doctor’s attitude towards depressed individuals in that he repeatedly stated that depressed individuals had a hard time making decisions. I believe that this is a gross over-generalization; it depends on the individual. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was thought to have been severely depressed at many times in his life, yet was able to make decisions that resulted in the end of slavery in the United States.

Many individuals who are not depressed also have distorted world views based on their religious or family backgrounds. How we think and treat others is often a result of our upbringing as well and not just a result of the chemicals in our brain.
That said, depression often skews a person’s thinking about his or herself more than anything else. A person who is depressed is likely to feel incapable of doing more than he or she already is and is more or less likely to have a more difficult time being pro-active.

As to whether or not there is an evolutionary advantage to depression, it’s hard to say. It’s also hard to find an evolutionary advantage to cancer or many other serious illnesses which affect the way a person is able to deal with life. The sad truth is in many cases there aren’t any silver linings, evolutionary or otherwise.

The only advantage that I can see to severe depression is that anyone who has come through and lived through a difficult depression has an incredible toughness that most people lack as well as a deep appreciation for when things are going well.