The Evolutionary Function of Depression

I recently read this from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity: Discovering the extraordinary gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences (pg. 100, 105-7). Admittedly there is some risk of justifying a depressed outlook (Armstrong is a self-described depressive); yet most of what he writes agrees with my own experience.

“Among the Coast Salish group of Native Americans in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, according to anthropologist Terry O Nell, 75 percent of the community identified themselves as being depressed. However, they had integrated the experience of depression into their own self-identity as a people. Writing about the Salish, anthropologist Richard Grinker notes, ‘The way to deal with the depression, the Salish people believe, is by transforming one’s sadness into compassion for others. It doesn’t get rid of the depression, but it does make the depressed individuals more useful members of their families and communities. The Salish think that depressed people—that is, the most “real Indians”—are the best guides for their community.’ Similarly, anthropologist Gananeth Obeyesekere suggests that the Buddhists of Sri Lanka see symptoms of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and sorrow as part of a recognized philosophy of life, not as a disorder.

“Research actually supports the idea that people who are depressed see the world more realistically than those who are not depressed. Psychologists have recruited groups of mildly depressed and nondepressed individuals and sat them in front of a light bulb and a button. When the subject pressed the button, the light bulb either came on or did not. In truth, the button didn’t control the light bulb at all, but individuals in the nondepressed group were more likely to think they were in charge of events and had control over the lighting of the bulb, while those in the depressed group were more realistic in their evaluation of events.

“Depressed people, although sadder, appear to be wiser than nondepressed individuals. . . . As Jungian psychologist James Hillman points out, ‘Sometimes I think there’s an underlying depression in the culture. . . . It makes me think that if you’re not depressed, you’re abnormal because the soul knows about the trees that are destroyed, the buildings that are destroyed, the ugliness that is spreading, the chaos of the culture in many ways  . . . and somehow if you’re not in mourning for what’s going on in the world, you’re cut off from the soul of the world. So in that sense I would think an underlying depression is a kind of adaptation to the reality of the world.’ . . . Hillman is suggesting here that the conditions of today’s world should evoke perhaps a sense of mournful empathy and that depression in our times cannot be untangled from the atrocities that occur in the name of civilization.

“Emely Gut states, ‘In a competitive, industrial, technocratic, and combative society as ours, it is an unacceptable thought that the depressed affect causing us to slow down and withdraw into ourselves could be useful and necessary to our personal development and to our adaptation to change. In business and industry, in military service, and in public education, where human activity is conducted in keeping with rigid time schedules, only physical disability  is—grudgingly—tolerated as an excuse for deserting one’s desk, one’s machine, or one’s platoon during working hours.’

“The experience of depression, then, could represent a certain kind of revolt against core American values, a protest against as busy society, where the individual is bargaining for some time off to look at life and its complex problems and find a way to cope with it all. There is research from the field of evolutionary psychology indicating that this may be why depression evolved in the first place. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that depression may have initially developed as a way of dealing with extraordinary levels of goal frustration: an inability to hunt, difficulty in obtaining the mate of one’s choice, insufficient help with child care, or other prehistoric tasks. Depression served, first of all, to put the brakes on so that some time could be given to searching out possible solutions (this may be the function of rumination in depression). In some cases, unrealistic goals needed to be abandoned.”

15 thoughts on “The Evolutionary Function of Depression

    • ha; not very likely; what’s more likely is wallowing in and taking refuge in depression, and this post could provide rationale for that.

      I think the proviso is that depression, to be meaningful, not only slows us down but tenderizes us and gives us compassion and deeper understanding; as compared to depression that makes us cynical, bitter, and intolerant. It comes down to how we meet our demons, perhaps?

  1. What an excellent thread, Jasun – finding that which is meaningful in depression. It is so strange…I was just reading this morning an essay on this very idea (at least, as it may relate to the psyche trying to recover itself from western civilization/scientism) in “Inner Paths to Outer Space” by Ede Frecska (essay titled “The Shaman’s Journey” p. 166). “In other words, if we descend into the depth of our psyche, we will arrive at something common in all of us and in everything. At the deepest level of our psyche, at the bottom of our soul, we become one with the ultimate reality”. And the writer goes on to suggest that it is this knowledge, that is greatly soothing to the soul. I agree with the idea that depression has much to teach us by slowing us down and making us pay attention to both ourselves and others, that might otherwise not happen. It is a harsh teacher, but if a person can manage truly learn and not grow bitter, depression does help us to mature. Certainly people who run to their psychiatrist to get Prozac are going to miss this very human process.

    In the last paragraph, you quote the idea that depression is a revolt against modern life. In relation to autism this rings like a clear-toned bell. I am also autistic, and have recognized my entire life that being in opposition to authority figures (as well as others), seems …well..imperative. The only way I can keep myself together…is by not following orders. And couple that with only periods of solitude – then and only then is there healing.

    I am a long time listener/reader of your work, Jasun. You are one of those people who have the ability to make someone feel better after having been with you (even virtually), than they felt before the stopped to read!

  2. Hi Debbie; good of you to chime in after all this time (I think this is the first time you’ve commented?).

    I’m curious about something, since you’ve been following my work for a while and are on the spectrum: what was your reaction when I self-identified as autistic? Were you surprised?

    So-called “shamanic ability” seems to develop naturally from exploring own psychic depths, like you describe. So if my writing, etc, has the effect you describe on some people (thanks for saying so, btw, & I hope it’s true), it may be because I’m on a kind of public integration “journey” that invites others to come along for the ride. It’s probably why I don’t reach a wider audience too – since not everyone is willing or able to join in this kind of “cathartic/shamanic theater.” (Not yet at least.)

    • Was I surprised when you publicly wrote about self-identifying with autism? Yes, I was. You are clearly a person with a very high IQ and a very wide-ranging and penetrating intellect. These are often characteristics of a person on the spectrum, but are certainly not exclusive to it. It is one of the reasons I have gravitated to your work, but when I read that you are on the spectrum…I felt a sort of “ahh….yes, of course he is – that explains why I understand and feel so comfortable with his work.” The resonance was there. It was a moment of recognition and one that was quite humbling. We still live in a culture that stigmatizes autism in all its forms – for someone of your standing in the alternative philosophy area to state himself as such is very inspiring. You are on a public integration journey, and to be invited along for the ride is a priviledge. And quite a comfortable ride:-)

      Yes…shamanic ability does seem to develop naturally from exploring one’s own psychic depths. Only he who can heal himself (or herself) can be trusted to heal others. That has always been the sign in traditional societies that someone is an authentic shaman and not who merely thinks he is. I grew up in the sixties and the healers, for me anyway, have always seemed to come out of the worlds of art, music and yoga. Some of these teachers may have been autistic, but not publicly said so. Cultural philosophers, such as Morris Berman, have staggering intellectual accomplishments, and can connect dots well…but are probably not on the spectrum, and therefore, don’t have the same resonance. Your work has the unique combinatory effect (at least for me), of connecting disparate cultural experiences with a very honest, authentic emotional authority.

      Nietezche once said, “For an old psychologist and pied piper like me, precisely that which would like to stay silent has to become audible.” I think you are a wonderful shamanic pied piper inviting us all to a journey that will show us quite wonderful, and sometimes, startling things! You give voice to that which needs to become audible.

      (yes, these have been my first posts here. To speak here took a bit of courage on my part, but you will see more, on occasion. I am currently working my way through the essay you posted regarding autism in popular culture and connections to violent acts. Outstanding work!)

  3. I’m glad you spoke up when you did. Strangely this process while it becomes more enjoyable and more deeply satisfying, doesn’t get any easier, so there is a continuous, even daily, experience of making audible that which wishes to remain silent, and the corresponding exposure anxiety – the dread of being criticized or condemned. Look at this blog, all these pictures of me, just inviting accusation of egomania or personal attacks on my physical appearance (both of which I’ve received in the past). I think we are on the edge of a new frontier – the edge between inner and outer worlds, which is the edge that every artist, shaman, and spiritual guide has always walked on, only now the technology (if not the self-awareness) is available for all. We have the tools at our fingertips which were once restricted to the very few, the tools of our own self-transformation.

    and transformation is the most intimate and solitary journey there is, but it’s also the most nakedly exposing – because it’s not just going into the dark of the chrysalis, it’s preparing to see it crack and know that, whatever new form emerges, we will be the last to see it. Like birth – all eyes are upon us in those moments because it’s the nature of bringing the inner out that we can only see what we are by being seen by others. Terrifying. But exhilarating.

    Zarathustra, they say, was born laughing.

    That’s my goal too.

  4. namaste` debbie f for sharing…..jake is a true warrior….i havent got the skills necessary to communicate with you guys…..jake certainly does….this is great food for my soul…..hey jake half way through matrix warrior and will post when finished….still a buddhist book for me……your anarchist buddhist friend derm

  5. namaste` debbief and jake again thanks…..i guess it`s close to 15 years now jake that we`ve been in touch ….there have been ups and downs and you have hung in there with me as i have with you…. you didn`t ask me but at the cost of butting in..suspect you were austitic ? no because i knew very little about it but learning from this blog……i always beleived you were in touch with a deeper level of reality…..and definitely had at your availability much much more esoteric knowledge than i….debbie why i call jake a true warrior is that he puts himself out on the front lines and takes the shit that goes with it….unlike most of us that stand on the sidelines…..maybe my 80 years of being in the consensus reality world i just got fed up with that world however i still pass on my tai chi info and now and then depending on the circumstances get on to other reality stuff… looking forward to sharing derm

  6. Namaste to you also Dermott and thank you for the welcome:-) I just read the article posted in the Guardian today about the “break through” in that they have determined a genetic relationship between Autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia. The researcher quoted specializes in psychiatric genetics – an Orwellian phrase if there ever was one. I hope that Jasun will write his thoughts about the implications of this research and how it is being reported in a future blog post. I can see it now…if you are under psychiatric care, or even just a formal label by a school or employer, for one of these conditions…you will have to undergo “treatment” to fix you. Imagine the response of a neurotypical to being “fixed” because someone thinks they need it.

  7. the photo at the article says more than anything else, I thought.

    I notice they don’t allow comments.

    It appears to exist in a perceptual vacuum in which the idea of neurodiversity is rendered inconceivable.

    Anything outside of the artificial parameters of normalcy = suffering and despair from which only science can save us.

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