Jonah Lehrer has a great article in the NYT magazine about depression and some recent research that suggests it may have some benefits.

If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population[…]

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.

It’s an interesting take on a pressing problem in psychiatry and society, but what really sets Lehrer apart is his willingness to accept and respond to criticism. Evidently, he received many responses from interested parties, and he took the time to publicly acknowledge and respond to these critiques.

In an ideal world, I would have spent another thousand words or so outlining the neuroscience of depression; there is always more to say about a subject as rich and complex as mental illness.

I know next to nothing about neuroscience, so I would have taken everything he wrote in that article at face value. However, there is clearly plenty of nuance that he necessarily had to leave out due to the medium – the fact that he knows this and made the effort to clarify sets him apart from science journalists that just transcribe the latest university press-release. And it should be a reminder that science is complex, and not easily distilled in a news article, even for the best of them.

Update: There’s another post from Jonah with answers to questions regarding this article – it’s a great discussion, I wish there were more like it. And these sentences apply to almost all new science research, especially when it comes to studying human behavior:

One of the most challenging aspects of studying depression is the vast amount of contradiction in the literature. Virtually every claim comes with a contradictory claim, which is also supported by evidence. I tend to believe this confusion will persist until our definition of depression become more precise, so that intense sadness and paralyzing, chronic, suicidal despair are no longer lumped together in the same psychiatric category.

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