In a recent Science Times article in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, explores a growing trend in academic circles to view depression as a “natural” condition that, like ordinary sadness, may provide evolutionary advantages. Separate studies by psychologists Paul W. Andrews (U. of Virginia) and Joseph P. Forgas (U. of New S. Wales) suggested that something about sadness might improve analytical reasoning and the capacity for critical, accurate detection of deceptive communication.
While Friedman acknowledges some benefits to sadness, he rejects the trend among scientists to extend this evolutionary thinking to depression. Writes Friedman: “Unlike ordinary sadness, the natural course of depression can be devastating and lethal. And while sadness is useful, clinical depression signals a failure to adapt to stress or loss, because it impairs a person’s ability to solve the very dilemmas that triggered it.”
Friedman notes that the ruminative thinking of depression is rarely effective in solving problems; on the contrary, depression tends to distort one’s thinking and judgment. In addition, if depression conferred a problem-solving benefit, it should not become a chronic or autonomous condition — which it is for about half the patients.
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability and the fourth leading contributor to the global burden of disease, projected to reach second place by 2020. We should do our best to avoid and treat depression (much as we do cancer, infections and heart disease), he concludes, even if it evolved from an emotional state that might once have given us some advantage.