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Depression Defies the Rush to Find an Evolutionary Upside

In certain quarters of academia, it’s all the rage these days to view human behavior through the lens of evolutionary biology. What survival advantages, researchers ask, may lie hidden in our actions, even in our pathologies?

Depression has come in for particular scrutiny. Some evolutionary psychologists think this painful and often disabling disease conceals something positive. Most of us who treat patients vehemently disagree.

Consider a patient I saw not long ago, a 30-year-old woman whose husband had had an affair and left her. Within several weeks, she became despondent and socially isolated. She developed insomnia and started to ruminate constantly about what she might have done wrong.

An evolutionary psychologist might posit that my patient’s response has a certain logic. After all, she broke off her normal routine, isolated herself and tried to understand her abandonment and plan for the future. You might see a survival advantage in the ability of depressed people like her to rigidly and obsessively fix their attention on one problem, tuning out just about everything and everyone else around them.

Certain studies might seem to support this perspective. Paul W. Andrews, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, reported that normal subjects get sadder while trying to solve a demanding spatial pattern recognition test, suggesting that something about sadness might improve analytical reasoning.

In a similar vein, Joseph P. Forgas, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, found that sad subjects were better judges of deception than happy ones. After subjects were shown a video intended to induce a happy or a sad mood, Dr. Forgas had them view deceptive or truthful interviews with people who denied committing a theft. Subjects in a sad mood were more skeptical and more accurate in detecting deceptive communication, while subjects in a positive mood were far more trusting and gullible.

Findings like these may suggest some benefits to sadness, but lately they have been generalized to patients with full-blown depression. For example, Dr. Andrews and Dr. J. Anderson Thomson Jr., a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, have proposed that the rumination of depressives is an adaptive strategy to solve a painful problem. Clinicians, on the other hand, continue to maintain that the grim outlook of depressives is evidence that their thought process is distorted and erroneous. It must be fixed, not embraced.

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