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Professor links depression to evolution

Published: Monday, February 3, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 09:02

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depressive disorder affects 6.7 percent of U.S. adults, yet depression’s root cause is little understood by scientists and the general population alike.

In response, USF psychology professor Jonathan Rottenberg wrote a book examining the origins of depression as a natural byproduct of human evolution.

His book, “The Depths,” challenges the perception that depression is merely a chemical imbalance, a spiritual defect or a lack of character. It was written after years of research at USF’s Mood and Emotion Laboratory.

“We’re studying emotion in many cases in people who have been diagnosed with depression, in people who are currently in a depressed episode,” he said. “We’re trying to understand the context in which emotion might be changed and which manifestations (of emotions) depression changes.”

Rottenberg’s fascination with the meaning of depression stemmed from his own experience.

“I had a really severe depression that lasted for four-plus years. I didn’t understand it at all, it was totally overwhelming,” he said. “I started to understand that moods can be really profound and bigger than yourself. And I thought I have to try and understand this.”

When Rottenberg began his research, he kept his depression secret from his friends and colleagues. 

“I was even hiding it from my daughter,” he said. “It just occurred to me that I can’t write this book — the book was intended to be blunt and honest and direct about problems with depression — without telling the world that I had this problem too.”

Rottenberg said considering “low mood” as a disadvantageous shortcoming is a misconception.

Early in human evolution, low mood would subconsciously convince a person to stay in their cave until the blizzard passed, Rottenberg wrote in a recent article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The article also stated that deflation of mood forces the rational mind to cautiously process situations in order to avoid thoughtless mistakes. Depression and anxiety are evolutionary traits meant to safeguard our species’ survivability, Rottenberg said. 

“Emotions do things for us,” he said. “They motivate us.”

If a person is depressed, the brain is communicating with the consciousness, he said.

On the other hand, an elated mood spurs creativity and encourages impulsiveness, he said.

Both depression and ecstasy have their purpose, but a problem occurs when depression persists longer than needed, or for months on end, Rottenberg said.

He said our moods are often confounded by the novelties and stresses of our fast-paced world.

“The research I’m doing on emotional functioning is relevant because I consider quite a bit in the book why it is that depression is often so persistent,” he said.

After publishing his book, Rottenberg started a “Come Out of the Dark” campaign that encourages people to openly discuss their depression.

“I realized how difficult it is for people who’ve had depression, because of stigma, to talk about it,” he said.

Alana Whittington, a junior majoring in psychology and Rottenberg’s assistant, said he joined the campaign after noticing the strong response.

“It got thousands of requests, and I wanted to help him and be a part of helping people find hope,” she said.“I hope to spread the word about depression stigma and combat the depression stigma that exists in the world today.”

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