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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Depressed and Right

The theory that depression is a positive trait, proposed by psychiatrist Nassar Ghaemi, is hardly new. In fact, it is almost fashionable for pop-psych talking heads to try to uncover the evolutionary advantages (yes, advantage, not dis-) of depressive tendencies. I have seen studies suggesting that depressed patients judge reality more accurately, have more empathy, and focus their attention better than non-depressed people. I take them with a grain of salt, especially toward the habitual rush to read "evolutionary advantage" into any pointless and accidental byproducts of this extremely imprecise, unreliable, and non-anthropomorphic process known as "natural selection."

I'm not clinically depressed, yet --- a fact that often surprises myself, because I am an above-average pessimist. And I have a possibly perverse fondness for tragedies and bleak stories. I think I'm right a lot more often than the normal optimists around me, but they disagree. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether this "healthy people have a slight bias toward optimism" is a biological phenomenon or a cultural one. Could very likely be localized to a few especially self-congratulatory and delusional cultures, but far from universal.

5 comments:

talich said...

我说,如果你还〝have a possibly perverse fondness for tragedies and bleak stories〞,你就不能算抑郁吧,最多只能是自寻烦恼。

Jun said...

No, I think it is just a temperament.

I can no more force myself to be optimistic and love feel-good, cuddly stuff (e.g., sit com like "King of Queens") than I can force myself to be taller than 5'3.

Jun said...

"The politics of radical empathy proved, in the end, to be beyond the capacity of the normal, mentally healthy public." 原文里这一句挺有趣的,不过其实大家都是空口说白话,没有数据或证据地顺嘴说说而已。

talich said...

temperament? 那个八成是基因决定的了。哇

Stephen H said...

I think reading "evolutionary advantage" into depression is a real stretch. The optimism/pessimism cheerful/depressed scale is just one of the many traits on which people are spread out through natural variation. It is inevitable that being a pessimist will be advantageous in some circumstances, but that does not mean it is necessarily currently subject to selection pressure.
I think Ghaemi's article is actually pretty even-handed in that he is saying just that and no more. In any case, I am not sure that the social context in which cheerfulness and depression is now played out has been around long enough for evolution to really have an effect: what is the equivalent of Churchill's or Gandhi's experience in a hunter-gatherer society? Maybe I just lack imagination...

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