…go, go, go, said the bird,
human kind cannot bear very much reality.

— TS Eliot, Burnt Norton

Depression is often a consequence of stress. It represents a shutting down of the normal systems of coping, of survival. In its most extreme form, it is debilitating, and can lead to suicide. It is a horrendous affliction. I’m not a psychologist or a neurologist, so what I’m about to hypothesize is based strictly on personal experience and observations.


As this chart shows, the combination of awareness of an acute problem and understanding of the situation that gave rise to that problem, leads to stress that can be dealt with in three ways:

  • Positively: Take aggressive action (fight or flee) or creative action to address the problem (i.e.  do something)
  • Passively: Deny the existence of the problem, or responsibility for it (i.e. do nothing)
  • Negatively: Be overwhelmed by the difficulty of the problem (i.e. become anxious or depressed)

This negative reaction can manifest itself three ways:

  • Disengagement: the feeling of isolation and separation from one’s fellow man or from nature, that leades to withdrawal and social disability. You can see this in people who spend most of their lives alone. We are all social animals, and such disengagement is extraordinary and unhealthy.
  • Discouragement: the feeling of helplessness, hopelessness and of being oppressed, of being out of control, of being unable to act in ways that we feel instinctively, morally or rationally we should.
  • Deprivation: the feeling of lacking the space and resources we need for a happy and healthy life, due to overcrowding or a shortage of the necessities of life.

People who are exceptionally intelligent, sensitive, artistic, and/or well-read seem particularly prone to depression. This may be because they are more aware than the rest of us of acute problems and the difficulty or futility of foreseeable solutions. To me this raises an obvious question: What is the function of depression in nature, what purpose does it serve, and why do exceptional people, who you would expect to be advantaged in natural selection, seem predisposed to a mental disease that disadvantages them?

One of the few lessons I’ve learned from life is that things are usually the way they are for a reason. In nature, a creature that is caught or injured will initially attempt to flee or fight, using a natural adrenaline rush (reacting aggressively/reacting creatively on the chart). If that fails, and the situation appears hopeless, the creature will give up, shut down, perhaps even go into shock in preparation to die. People who are exposed to extreme shock or stress, or are imprisoned under exceptionally cruel circumstances, or suffer from intense or protracted physical disease, often exhibit similar fight-or-flight and then shut-down behaviour.

If you take a Darwinian perspective on this, you have to ask how such responses in our modern human culture, in the face of relentless but less extreme stress over a lifetime, contribute to the survival of our species.

My answer is that they don’t. In nature, intelligent creatures act smartly and survive, outliving the less advantaged. When they encounter a problem they can’t solve through action, such as a crippling disease or capture by a predator, they shut down. They know when they’re beaten, and they accept that. Their ‘depressed’ behaviour aids the tribe by having them withdraw rather than expose the rest of the tribe to the problem that beat them.

In our modern society, this set of responses doesn’t work. We are aware of, and accept responsibility for, many more problems, and more acute problems, than we can ever hope to solve. Aggression in our sophisticated and crowded culture leads not to quick resolution of the problem, but to escalation of violence, and this aggression almost inevitably fails. Creativity and innovation are our greatest strengths, but they usually create new acute problems faster than they solve the old ones.

And the sheer complexity of our society requires us to give up much of the control over our lives that human individuals once had, to others, which vastly reduces our agility and ability to act. So we are left with the alternatives of inaction — denying the problem or responsibility for it, which is disingenuous, immoral, irrational and counter-intuitive, or internalizing the feelings of isolation, helplessness and deprivation, which leads to anxiety and depression.

I would argue that this is why so many of us, especially our most exceptional citizens, suffer such mental anguish in a world of unprecedented material wealth and unsustainable stresses. Worse, as those that have the best handle on what needs to be done quit the field, we leave the tyrants, the aggressors, the ignorant and the psychopaths in charge. It’s completely natural, and completely unnatural. It’s also depressing, and potentially our world’s undoing.

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  1. Marie Foster says:

    I have sort of avoided reading this. I think that you have come up with one type of feedback loop that can cause depression. I guess that the greater the stress maybe the greater the manic reaction to it by the creative person.It could be that part of the problem is for those of us who live too much in our heads and not enough in our bodies. But that is just a guess on my part. I know that when I neglect to exercise my mood swings seem more acute.

  2. Charly Z says:

    I’d agree with Marie that maybe some of us “live too much in our heads” et cetera. If depression is more common among the “exceptionally intelligent, sensitive, artistic, and/or well-read,” it’s because as, the more simple-minded would argue, they “think too much.” The human body hasn’t evolved in the last, what, million years? And yet human technology has evolved in exponential leaps, especially in the last century. I’d hypotesize that the human mind isn’t ready yet for “too much thinking,” that we still must be in contact with our gut in order to avoid “shutting down” under stress.One thought: I had read that depression is a learned response created when the individual “realizes” that no matter what they do, they can’t change the outcome of events in their life. Would you agree that depression is a conditioned response? And how would that fit in a Darwinian model?

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    I think it could be a conditioned response, though if the situation is sufficiently severe (e.g. if one is in a concentration camp) I think it would be quite instinctive. The book The Noonday Demon goes so far as to say that depression is an automatic Darwinian response to a failed attempt to challenge authority (the ‘alpha’) and saves the alpha from having to kill or expel the loser. That interpretation seems unduly severe, ‘unnatural’ to me, but the book is from someone who has suffered a lifetime of mind-numbing depression and spent his whole life studying it and talking to others afflicted by it. As for ‘too much’ thinking, short of head-in-the-sand denial I can’t see how you can ignore a situation when your instincts, your reason, and your ethics all tell you the same two things: (1) that something is very wrong, and (2) that, as Bruce Cockburn put it so gracefully, “there is no human answer near”.

  4. John Kusch says:

    What you’re discussing is not depression in a clinical sense. There is a certain pattern of thinking that can lead a person to feel depressed — particularly situations where a stressor is encountered but there doesn’t seem to be a way to relieve that stress — but depression that is based on real responses to situations is not clinical depression.You’re correct that depression is debilitating — it prevents some that suffer from it from taking even the most rudimentary steps to sustain their own lives. Getting out of bed, for example. Or eating.However, it is a common myth that “positive thinking” or “reason” can cure depression. If they could, I think that current therapeutic approaches to depression would be much more effective.Clinical depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. The emotions it causes seem to come from nowhere, and are not linked to any specific event or stressor. The anguish and hopelessness is, much to the chagrin of the sufferer and any well-wishers around him, without external cause.The section of your diagram where the subject reacts to stressors implies that being depressed is a choice, that the depressed individual can choose to take cognitive action to end the feelings of dissociation and pain. But in true clinical depression, there is no choice. It’s the hardest thing to explain about it.

  5. Eddie Williams says:

    What about just plain old empathy?The world is a mess. Millions suffer, yet a small percentage pursue gratification blindly.Maybe just getting off our sofas and going out there and doing something about it would relieve depression. I don’t say it will relieve all the suffering, but that has never been realistic. It might just get one out of one’s own head, come in contact with real humans and exchange real connections. Mad side effect: it would make the world a better place.I tried this for a while. Went to Ghana and taught English in the bush. Went to Israel and built a clinic for Bedouin in the dessert.I felt useful and worth something, though I slept on the ground or in a sweltering box.Got back to comfortable, opulant America, and felt like shit again. Just don’t want to participate in the denial here, denial that is necessary to stave off guilt in order to go on stuffing our holes.We analyze our own problems as if they were problems common to all humans. Three-quarters of the world don’t worry about depression the way we define it – they are far too busy trying to stay alive.I was about to try Lexapro. Think I’ll pass though, and try to change my life in a more tangible way. I want to be able to TRUST the results. It’s true the world is too mad a place for me to control; but getting a handle on how I see it is something I CAN control. But not if I do it through a drug. That will just make me see it through a hazy rose colored filter, and then I won’t be living in the real world at all. I think that is a central issue: do I want to live in the real world, despite its problems, or would I trade that for shutting off the depression?If those are the only two alternatives, I can understand drugs. But it seems to me one should be able to come to terms with reality and still feel good, not all the time, but enough. For me, I think this requires taking some responsibility for combating all the negative things I see in the world. Maybe Mother Theresa wasn’t a saint after all, just someone doing her best to be happy.eddie

  6. Edward Furio says:

    When God creates the world told the angels: I will give two good things to each country, buy it gave three to Argentina. When the angels claimed him, he told: ¨Don´t worry, I will put the Argentinians inside¨. Imagine if you are a Argentinian, live in Argentina and have a Master and two titles more. It´s not enough to feel depressed ?. The problem (according to Darwin) is that the Argentinians didn´t evolutionate. Bye, sorry for my Spanglish

  7. Julie Klaass Lauritzen says:

    Depression has become the preoccupation of my life. It is amazing that I found this work by Dave Pollard. I have two brothers who succombed to the depression that was so incongruent with society.My grandmother also gave her life up, in order to raise the question, “What is depression for?” The depressed mind seems to try to compassionately cushion the person who feels dead, dead to the world, perhaps, and prepare for change. Sadly death is sometimes the change. In nature, if a living organism cannot fulfill the measure of its creation (due to internal, or external circumstances) it ceases to exist -it dies. Yet, I am not for suicide, I wish with everything in me that my brothers had imagined an alternative to suicide. Their imagination was seized, or ceased. Problem solving had been exhausted in their short time on earth.Darwin raised the idea that we have evolved. We can evolve… IT IS A CHOICE, depression is a possible catalyst for a change. But, who is listening… maybe just those who have already died.

  8. Werner Scott says:

    I agree there may an evolutionary component to depression. It is certainly not a disease and is not in any way “caused” by some imbalance in neurological pathways. WEven the word ‘imbalance’ smacks of new age rubbish of which the world has too much already. If survival ultimately rests upon altruism which is reciprocated then an important and obvious issue arises. Trust implies a minimum level of personal honesty and of course congenital sanity. Within a functional group (tribe,village,etc ) the possibility aways exists that sociopathic individuals may exploit such sentiments. Of course they will do so with the conscious intention of encouraging such “weakness” in others to the latter’s detriment. The damge such people do is legendary and becomes exponently more brutal with the increasing power of central authority, both corporate and governmental. It is reasonable, but not as yet proven, there may be a mechanism resulting from selective pressure which allows or enables certain individuals to “decouple ” from the outcomes spawned by anti-social individuals, eg. the endless minor compromises within which many people find themselves caught. Some of these are caused by employers, politicians, neighbours although others are the product of inappropriate responses ie. narcissism. Could depression be a strategic retreat and/or a means to force sincere reflection ( penitence )upon evasive minds? It may therefore enhance status among the group (empathy) which in turn could raise the sufferers position at a LATER DATE. As was said above people who express symptoms of depression are sometimes those who SHOULD be the “alphas”.

  9. Brilliantly conveyed.It’s amazing how animals provide us with an example of human characteristic distilled down to the essence of a behavior.The only thing I get depressed about is how little thought most other people give to anything worthwhile. Ignorance is bliss.Creative people have an increased tendency to go crazy because they aren’t neural normal to begin with. If they were, their creativity would be commonplace. If it were not for the 2% of the population that has those creative gifts, we would be still in the stone age.Howard Hues comes to mind…As previous posts suggest; struggling for day to day survival tends to add perspective by moderating intellectual pursuits -I suppose survival is an activity that most closely resembles ‘exercise’ in the modern world.From a Darwinian perspective, we observe that beneficial mutations can come at the cost of added complexity and side-effects. The adaptive immune system as an example: An enhancement, yes, infallible, no.Points on the extreme ends of the bell curve aren’t explained easily.

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