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Why Does Depression Exist at All? Practical Implications of an Evolutionary Explanation for Mood

Randolph M. Nesse, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology
Research Professor, Research Center for Group Dynamics, ISR
Director, Evolution and Human Adaptation Program
University of Michigan

Where did depression come from? Why does it remain present in society? Randolph M. Nesse, M.D. discusses the importance of asking the right question in pursuing research. A proximate question is one that asks, “How does the mechanism work?” On the other hand, an evolutionary question is one that focuses on “why the mechanism is the way that it is.” Dr. Nesse asserts that the most important distinction happens to be biology. He talks about emotions, which he believes to be his specialty. He declares that one must not think of emotions as basic emotions that are all separate from one another, but rather emotions that are emerging and overlapping with one another. While most people believe negative states to be dreadful, Dr. Nesse actually proposes that they can be useful in specific situations. He notes that fear, anger, etc. are known to be useful responses in the right situation. Mood exists because individuals who have the ability of varying their moods have a selective advantage, says Dr. Nesse. He compares all of this to the foraging theory. Dr. Nesse believes that those who persist and engage are the ones who are more prone to depression. This is because people are sometimes attempting to pursue unreachable goals. He concludes that a thorough patient evaluation and assessment is one that includes questions about: money, occupation, partner, sex, offspring, family, allies, status, time, appearance, health and abilities. Dr. Nesse leaves the audience with the idea that there are three things that combine to cause depression: the situation, how the person views the situation, and ultimately the brain.


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