Researchers Believe Depression Once Offered Humans an Evolutionary Advantage
Genetic, immune, and neurological components point to evolutionary underpinnings.
Around 15 million US adults suffer from depression. 6.9 million American adolescents have been diagnosed. The condition is common. 10% of the population may suffer from significant depression sometime in their life. While 30-50% of folks are bound to feel some sort of depressive symptoms at some point. This isn’t relegated to the West.
Depressive symptoms have been found in every culture on Earth and throughout history, though at one time it was called melancholia. Unlike other psychiatric disorders, which are rare, depression is fairly common. According to a San Diego University study, depression across the US has increased significantly over the last couple of decades or so, and people are experiencing more symptoms today too, such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Suicide is also at a 30 year high. This matches worldwide statistics.
More people in the world today die from their own hand than in wars and car accidents combined. In the US every age group, other than older adults, has been affected. But women and the middle-aged are particularly prone to suicide. Studies have shown that in most cases, depression or some other disorder was the motivating factor. Researchers blame economic anxiety such as financial trouble and job instability and the inability to save for retirement, or even an emergency.
Another reason may be increased social isolation, as the middle-aged have a high rate of divorce. One study even called it a byproduct of modernity. Here the author wrote, “Modern populations are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially-isolated.” Chronic diseases are on the rise too, and this may influence the depression rate.
Though effective for some, antidepressants don’t help everyone. And several come with worrisome side effects such as suicidal thoughts, leading to the need for a better understanding of depression.
Little is known for sure. But in the last few years, researchers have gained biological insights into the mood disorder and have hypothesized about its purpose. We think of depression as an obstacle to good health and in extreme cases, even survival. But what if at one time, it actually gave one an evolutionary advantage?
Some research points to neurophysiology as the basis for depression. 5HT1A is a serotonin receptor. This is the neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of well-being. In some studies, when this receptor was lacking in rodent models, they were resistant to depressive symptoms. Pharmaceutical companies are currently developing drugs that target this receptor.
Other studies have shown that the brain operates differently in those suffering from depression. An area of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) shows remarkable activity in the depressed. This area is known to engage analytical thinking. The depressed often ruminate over their problems. When this occurs, the neurons in this region fire on a continuous basis. The 5HT1A receptor is thought to provide the fuel these neurons need to engage the rumination process.
Because of this, scientists posit that depression is a neurological process that helps the person avoid distractions, in order to concentrate on a difficult problem. Evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews posits this “analytical rumination hypothesis,” which states that by promoting a period of rumination, one can come up with a solution and therefore, increase their chances of survival.
There is some evidence to support this theory. Research has shown that the depressed often get more REM sleep, which helps consolidate memories. Also, those with depression have been shown to be better at solving social problems. And social cohesion was extremely important to our early ancestors. If the band couldn’t cooperate, how could it survive?
Rumination may have given us an evolutionary advantage.
Another theory is that major depression is an immune response. Those genes which beef up our immune system to fight off infection also increase our risk of depression, according to Andrew Miller, MD of Emory University and his colleague Charles Raison, MD at the University of Arizona. The symptoms we associate with depression including fatigue, a lack of desire to take part in once pleasurable activities, and social withdrawal.
These would have kept a contagion away from the social group, helping to contain the infection. The person also conserves energy, which could be used to aid an immune response. Advances in medical science and public health may have made this reaction obsolete. But for our ancestors, infection was the topmost killer.
A gene mutation known as NPY is associated with an increased inflammatory response. Though this is helpful for fighting off infection, it's also associated with depression. This gene controls a neurotransmitter called Neuropeptide Y, which helps increase our ability to endure stress. Those with a mutated NPY gene saw a stronger immune response, according to researchers the University of Michigan.
But today, it merely causes a higher likelihood of developing depression. Those with this mutation may have an immune system that reacts much like a smoke detector. Though it lies inert, when a stressful event occurs, like an infection, this immune response is triggered, much like how the detector picks up smoke and signals the alarm.
Drs. Miller and Raison attempted to test the “Smoke Detector Principle,” by giving depressed patients an anti-inflammatory drug. Turns out, not every person dealing with depression has chronic inflammation. Only some patients responded, those with a certain genetic signature. But these participants saw dramatic improvements.
Knowing how the immune system and major depression are linked could help develop the new and growing field of immunotherapy, while offering a better understanding of the immune system, and more advanced treatments for certain kinds of depression.
A better understanding of the neurological and genetic aspects could reap further insights and novel treatments as well. The biological and evolutionary underpinnings are multifaceted and complex. More research is required, particularly since the need is so great.
To learn one novel approach to treat depression and other disorders, click here:
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
Design is all around us in a myriad of forms. From the screen interfaces on your phones and devices to the handles on your shower faucets. We often know instinctively what constitutes great design, there's an almost ephemeral quality to it. Great design offers comfort, ease of use and a feeling of being in the know and in control.
Bad design on the other hand hits us like an ill-shaped rock – hard to navigate websites, Rube Goldberg machines and a general sense of annoyance and confusion. Design is both a science and an art and everybody is affected by it in some way. Whether you're a designer or just appreciate design and want to know more, here are the 10 best books on design.
The Design of Everyday Things
In a clear and concise matter, Don Norman writes about the flaws that plague the design of everyday objects, which makes our lives more trouble than they need to be, more inconvenient and sometimes downright dangerous. This was a book written in the late 1980s, but is still relevant today, as it has been updated a few times.
The book isn't just an exposé of horrid design, but also a tale of how designers in all industries can become better apt to customers' and end-users' needs. It's a must read for any type of designer, as Norman goes into great detail about design methodologies, ideals and psychology. He has many thoughts about how if you can't figure something out, it's not always your fault but often the designer's. His philosophy of design is proper communication and usability, Norman states:
"Eliminate the term human error. Instead talk about communication and interaction. When people collaborate with one another the word error is never used to characterize another person's utterance."
About Face: The Essentials of Interaction
Let's face it, the majority of design today is within the digital field: software design, websites, applications and other mediums of online & digital expression. Alan Cooper & Co.'s About Face is the premier book for interaction design. It covers project processes, goal directed design and everything you could ever need to know about user feedback, controls and comprehensive overview of interaction.
The book is sprawling and deep dives into just about any common UI widget in existence. It's considered a pillar of learning material for UI/UX designers. While some may get turned off by its length and pedantic explanations, it also serves as an excellent reference book for UX designers.
A Designer's Art
Paul Rand's book was published in 1985 and was one of the first of its kind. The renowned graphic designer wanted to create a book that would explain the art of a growing discipline, rather than just show it visually. The book is packed with personal views on design, peppered with his expansive portfolio and also cites a number of renowned academics.
Rand was another designer who felt that communication is absolutely key when it comes to design. He states:
"Graphic design which evokes the symmetria of Vitruvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is a good gestalt, generated by intuition or by computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates is not good design if it does not communicate."
Beauty and symmetrical supremacy doesn't mean a whole lot if it can't communicate its intended message. For students of design, teachers and professionals, this is a book that is great for explaining and expressing the creative communication of ideals.
A Product Guide to UX Design
Business and design often coalesce together in an alliance of production. A professional designer is going to be required to interact with other aspects of running a business. Ensuring that a user interaction is running smoothly and the design assets are glowing in perfect fidelity and union with the product are all well and good and the meat of a UX designer's job; but working this into an overall business perspective is also an important skill to have.
This book by Russ Unger and Carolyn Chandler covers a breadth of topics for those who might have minimal experience in UX design, but are interested in applying their newfound skills in a business setting.
Elements of User Experience
Jesse James Garrett exposes in a very clear way the essence of user experience for the web. He breaks down the ux for the web into five different planes going deep into the vocabulary and strategy for designing better experiences for our digital world.
He sets out some simple rules for consistency and great design:
"Presenting a style on your Web site that's inconsistent with your style in other media doesn't just affect the audience's impression of that product; it affects their impression of your company as a whole. People respond positively to companies with clearly defined identities. Inconsistent visual styles undermine the clarity of your corporate image and leave the audience with the impression that this is a company that hasn't quite figured out who it is."
Geometry of Design: Studies in Proportion and Composition
Kimberly Elam's Geometry of Design brings out the mathematical guns in analyzing and postulating about the inherent symmetrical nature of great design. She explores the relationships between visual representations and their foundations in geometry. It's a great book that focuses on the golden ratio and root rectangles.
Elam utilizes overlays and grids in order to identify designs in different works of design and art. She looks at the underlying geometric structures in architecture, compositions and even furniture. The author has a great ability to distill these high level math concepts and distill them in an understandable and relatable way with insight into the design process.
Universal Principles of Design
This landmark book is the ultimate reference and cross-disciplinary design book. With richly illustrated and fantastic design elements, this book clearly displays a wide range of visual and design concepts. From anthropomorphic form to the Golden ratio, these over 100 design concepts are well-defined and thought out for readers to expand their principal knowledge.
It's a great book for skimming and also using a reference. There's also a few mind-benders in there as well, for example:
"The 80/20 rule asserts that approximately 80 percent of the effects generated by any large system are caused by 20 percent of the variables in that system."
Apply this same concept to an app and you'll find that this is also true. These principles are a great starting off point to delve deeper into the fundamentals of design in all types of mediums.
Don’t make me Think!
Written and first published in 2000, Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think has served as a bible for a countless number of web designers and businesspeople. With an updated version for mobile usability, Krug presents his ideas in an understandable way for web designers to learn more about navigation and information design.
It's an excellent introduction to creating websites with some just plain common sense advice. As the title states, a website should be first and foremost functional and something people barely need to think about when using it.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
This classic book on statistics, graphs, charts and tables puts together both theory and practice in the visualization of data graphics. The text has some 250 plus of some the best and worst graphics for review. The book takes into account a number of highly sophisticated graphical design aspects, including:
- High resolution displays
- Editing graphics
- Data-ink ratio
- Time Series
- Relational graphics
- Data maps
- Design variations versus data variations
- & more!
Many people don't understand the importance of graphical competence as it requires a number of skills, both statistical and even artistic. Edward R. Tufte does a great job pointing out that while graphical representation is usually lacking in media publications, journals and general reading materials – graphical representation and comprehensive is a necessary in many fields for experts.
The One Device: the Secret History of the iPhone
While this book doesn't necessarily tout the fundamentals of design, it's an exciting historical view of what some people consider to be one of the greatest designed devices within the past few decades. There is no doubt that the iPhone has revolutionized the world, smartphone industry and changed our modern way of life. A mastery of design and functionality, the iPhone is the holy grail of devices.
Packed within this slab of computational glass is a story that needed to be told. Brian Merchant's book does just that. The history of the phone, electronics, early start of the secretive project within the Apple headquarters – all of this tells a tale of an exceptionally well-designed product.
There's still a lot even doctors don't know about it.
- Scientists are experimenting with applying electrical current to brains as a potential therapy and enhancement.
- A wave of DIY brain-shocking is worrying experts.
- Would you ever zap your own brain to see what happens? DIY and direct-to-consumer devices are available, but researchers have called for an open dialog with the DIY community about the risks.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.