Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
Mood dependent behaviour refers to the state of mind when a person can only take action if they feel capable of it, even though they are otherwise completely capable of acting. It might be putting off doing an assignment, it might be procrastinating about preparing a healthy meal, it might be as simple as waiting until the house is empty before emerging from one’s room. It can be hard for a person to understand this if they have never felt so small and miserable before to find such ordinary daily activities so overwhelming. Ridicule or condescension are common reactions when opening up to someone about facing such struggles. Failing to find a compassionate ear results in an unwillingness to attempt to open up again in the future, adding an extra layer of loneliness and despair to the experience. When one is this powerfully affected by one’s mood, it can feel preferable to hide alone or to starve rather than to ever face the terrifying world that lies beyond the front door. Continue reading
While one often comes across articulate and well-argued articles criticising anti-depressants from a medical or efficacy point of view, one seldom comes across the philosophical argument against anti-depressants. It was, in fact, the philosophical case against anti-depressants that convinced me as a teenager that I would never, ever take them for myself, a decision that has been beneficial to me ever since.
I am against their usage both on medical grounds and on philosophical grounds, but I accept that anti-depressants are likely here to stay. Indeed, I would argue we have always had anti-depressants, for what else should we call caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and opium but traditional remedies for our emotional ailments? People who are feeling low in motivation often indulge in coffee for the caffeine hit. People who lack courage often indulge in alcohol to shore up their nerves. People who are miserable will often indulge in excessive amounts of sugar to give themselves a rush. Everywhere, we have people self-medicating on different substances in attempts to battle their moods and unwanted feelings. Anti-depressants are not anything new, they’ve been with us all along.
In this piece, I am going to ignore all the medical and efficacy arguments, not because I do not think these discussions are not important, but because I believe the philosophical argument is the strongest of the three. For the sake of argument, I will assume that anti-depressants actually work precisely as intended: that they alleviate sadness, depression, grief, and malaise effectively and without significant side effects. I make this assumption not just for the sake of simplicity, but to better illustrate why we should be wary of them. I believe the better anti-depressants work, the stronger the philosophical case against them. Continue reading
I know someone, a man who is deeply unhappy. He is miserable and, judging from how well he takes care of his body, he is someone who does not care if he ruins his health and dies early. He has suffered from depression for years and often talks about how he will overcome it. However, I have not seen any real effort on his part to overcome his depression. Despite his stated intentions to get better, I cannot help but wonder if maybe there is something important that he is getting from depression, something so valuable that he does not want to take the risk of losing it? What benefit of depression is he getting? What incentive does he have in fervently avoiding anything that would help improve his condition?
In many cases, depression is a result of fighting a battle that cannot be won. Trying to get meaning out of a meaningless job, trying to appease an abuser, trying to change a person into someone else—these are common examples of unwinnable battles people fight for years that drive them into depression or “learned helplessness”. In essence, the problem with these cases of depression is not that the person has given up, but that they have not given up. If they gave up on their impossible task, they could focus their energy on something far more productive and likely to fulfil them. Continue reading
Lack of motivation is a common complaint in the 21st century. Many people talk about feeling a lack of motivation. There are many factors that control how motivated a person feels: incentives, deterrents, personal interest, cognitive dissonance, past childhood traumas, and dopamine levels all rate highly. Each of these topics deserves an article in its own right, but for this topic, however, this article will concern itself merely with self-esteem and dopamine levels. Furthermore, it will act simply as an introduction to the topic of dopamine and its relationship to motivation. If you are interested in this topic, you are urged to do your own further research, as this article will not be an in-depth academic piece. There are a few links at the bottom to get you started.
Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that appears to be strongly connected with motivation. People who lack dopamine have difficulty getting up to do anything. In fact, Parkinson’s disease, a condition that gradually paralyses its victims over time, does so by killing off the neurons responsible for producing dopamine. Without dopamine, we are simply brains trapped in jars. This raises some interesting questions about the nature of depression: is depression actually about sadness at all or just about motivation? If we pull happiness and motivation apart from each other, we can arrive at four distinct states:
- Happy and motivated.
- Miserable and unmotivated.
- Miserable, but motivated.
- Happy, but unmotivated.