Sunday, March 30, 2014

Barking up the wrong tree for depression

Old tree, taking a time-out, filling its soul
 Odiorne State Park: 3/29/14
CC Jean Stimmell
 We are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to understanding and treating depression according to a new book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic[1] by Jonathan Rottenberg. [2]

He convincingly documents how our mood system is a complex, multi-faceted, biological part of us, mostly beyond our conscious awareness, and it has significant evolutionary survival value.

Unfortunately, as modern humans, we have lost sight of positive attributes of depression because of the cultural constructs we have created through language. Using our ability to spew forth words, we have constructed stories depicting depression as an arch villain, a dreaded pathology that is unequivocally bad.

The trouble is, as Rottenberg notes, “the stories we tell ourselves about our moods often end up being just that. Stories.”

“One of the amazing things about the mood system is how much of it operates outside of conscious awareness. Moods, like most adaptations, developed in species that had neither language nor culture. Yet words are the first things that come to mind when most people think about moods. We are “mad,” we are “sad,” we are “glad.” So infatuated are we with language that both laypeople and scientists find it tempting to equate the language we use to describe mood with mood itself.
This is a big mistake. We need to shed this languagecentric view of mood, even if it threatens our pride to accept that we share a fundamental element of our mental toolkit with rabbits and roadrunners.”[3]

Rottenberg cites studies showing how subjects with depressed mood are more deliberate, skeptical, and careful in how they process information from their environment than subjects with elevated mood, concluding:

“Just as animals with no capacity for anxiety were gobbled up by predators long ago, without the capacity for sadness, we and other animals would probably commit rash acts and repeat costly mistakes.”[4]

So what is the bottom line.?

The bottom line that resonates with me is the poetic definition of depression that  Rottenberg cites by Lee Stranger, from his essay “Fading to Gray,”

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.[5]

Coco barking up the wrong tree but not depressed

[1] I am indebted to Maria Popova for her review of Rottenberg at:
[2]  The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic by Jonathan Rottenberg
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lee Stringer from his essay “Fading to Gray,” found in the altogether fantastic 2001 volume Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression:

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