The best treatment for depression lies in our evolutionary history

Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. So how do we reverse it?

Johann Hari: There’s a really heartbreaking study that asked Americans, “How many close friends do you have that you can call on in a crisis?” 

And when they started doing it decades ago the most common answer was five. Today the most common answer is none. It’s not the average but it’s the most common answer.

And I thought a lot about that in so many of the places I’ve been in the United States. I interviewed and got to know an incredible man called Professor John Cacioppo, a world expert on loneliness. He’s at the University of Chicago. 

And Professor Cacioppo explained to me, you know, if you think about the circumstances where human beings evolved, right, we evolved—the reason why you’re able to watch this through your laptop or wherever you’re watching it, the reason why we exist is because our ancestors on the savannahs of Africa were really good at one thing. They weren’t bigger than the animals they took down but they were much better at cooperating than them. 

Every human instinct human beings have is to be part of a cooperative tribe, right. Bees need a hive. Humans need a tribe. And if you think about the circumstances where human beings evolved, if you were separated from the group you would become depressed and anxious for an incredibly good reason. You were in terrible danger. You were probably about to die. Those are the instincts we still have. 

Yet we’ve told ourselves a story that we can live without tribes. We are the first human beings ever to try to live without communities, to imagine that like some cowboy on the horizon—and even the cowboys didn’t do it this way—we can live alone, we can be alone. That’s not the species we are. 

And it’s causing, and Professor Cacioppo has proven that this loneliness epidemic is one of the key causes of the epidemic of depression and anxiety that we have across our society.

And I was really interested to find out well, who has acted on that? Who has tried to find an antidepressant for the loneliness crisis? I met an incredible man, one of the heroes of my book Lost Connections called Sam Everington. Sam is a doctor in East London, one of the poorest parts of East London actually where I lived for many years. 

And Sam was really uncomfortable because he had loads of patients coming to him who were depressed and anxious. And he had been told in his training even though he knew the science was much more sophisticated than this to tell people, “Well you feel this way because you’ve got a chemical imbalance in your brain,” and just give them drugs. 

Like me, Sam is not opposed to those drugs. He’s in favor of them but he just thought this is not enough. This isn’t solving the reason why these people are depressed and anxious. 

He could see how lonely and cut-off they were. So he pioneered a different approach. And I’ll tell you about it through one of the patients of his that I got to know. 

A woman called Lisa Cunningham came to Sam, and Lisa has been shut away in her home for seven years with crippling anxiety and depression. 

She came to Sam and Sam said to her, “Don’t worry Lisa, I’ll give you the drugs, whatever you need. I’m also going to prescribe something different. I’m going to prescribe for you to take part in a group. There was an area behind the doctor’s surgery that was known as “dog crap alley”, right. Because you can sense what it was like, they didn’t really use the word “crap,” I’m being polite. Just an area of scrubland. 

And what Sam said is what I’d like you to do is twice a week I’d like you to meet with a group of other depressed and anxious people. We’ll turn out and support you. And I’d like you to just turn this into something beautiful. 

The first meeting Lisa was literally physically sick with anxiety. Many of the other people there were shaking. And they started talking to each other. They didn’t know anything about gardening. They were inner city people from East London. As the weeks and months and then years went by, they taught themselves gardening. They had something to talk about that wasn’t how terrible they felt. They could reconnect with the natural world.

There’s incredible evidence that interacting with the natural world is one of the most powerful natural antidepressants we have. 

And, as human beings do when we’re in groups, they started to solve each other’s problems. There was a guy in the group who was sleeping on the night bus. Lisa thought, “Well, of course, you’re depressed, you’re sleeping on a bus!” 

She was outraged. Her and some other people in the group started pressuring the local authorities to get him housing. They succeeded. It was the first thing they’d done for someone else in years. It made them feel better than doing anything for themselves. And the way Lisa put it to me: As the flowers began to bloom, they began to bloom. 

There was a study in Norway which is part of a great body of research of a very similar program that found it was more than twice as effective as chemical antidepressants. I think for obvious reasons. It’s dealing with the reasons why they were so depressed and anxious in the first place. Everywhere I went in the world I found the most effective strategies for depression and anxiety were the places that were dealing with these deeper causes.

Thanks in no small part to the digitization of our social lives, depression is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in western societies. In the space of just one generation, we've closed ourselves off and now spend more time in front of screens — on average, 10 hours a day according to a Neilsen report — than we do with our loved ones. Author and journalist and author Johann Hari explains that this isn't at all how the human species is supposed to behave. He suggests more actual face time with people, more community, and above all: becoming the social creatures that we have been for millennia. Johann's new book is the fascinating Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

Credit: fergregory via Adobe Stock
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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

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