Posts Tagged ‘depression’

In Which The Complaint Is Longer Than The Original Piece

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Something that caught my eye in the news the other day: an article about scientists discovering a potential genetic link to depression. Whilst the subject itself is interesting, and we will get to that in a moment, this article also provides us an illustrative example of the problem with overly-simplistic science reporting. In this case, it is playing up to a popular misconception about the nature of genetics, by stating that the genes in question actively cause depression. This is almost certainly wrong, for reasons which experts would have a much easier time explaining, but I will give it a shot.

All human behaviour, to varying extents, is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment (additionally, you could also say that genes construct phenotypes – some of which, such as the psychological makeup of the human brain, become a kind of third player in this interaction, transcending their genetic origins but also acting independently of any environmental influences). The idea of genes playing a predominant role in this process is kind of like suggesting that all you need is the recipe to know how a meal is going to taste. If you don’t go to the trouble of gathering the necessary ingredients, cooking them, and actually eating the final product, you’re going to miss out on a lot of important information. And even then, you can’t speak authoritatively about the recipe, because variations in ingredients and the cooking process will produce subtlely – or even substantially – different results each time.

Depression is no different in this regard, and its status as a problem that has both genetic and environmental roots is fairly well accepted by most experts. And yet the idea of a neat genetic cause remains appealing, both here and with many other problems, for a couple of reasons. First is just the basic simplicity of it – but whilst simplicity is of course highly valued in science, this simplicity should never come at the expense of fact. Elegant simplicity, encompassing all the known facts, is the real ideal to strive for. And secondly, there is a strange comfort that people seem to derive from the idea of genetic predeterminism, even when it causes significant problems, because it negates responsibility for any actions that may have otherwise caused said problems. In other words, no one has to modify their behaviour to prevent depression in this scenario, because it’s just genes and there’s not much you can do about it. Naturally, this is especially appealing to people who don’t actually suffer from depression, but whose actions or beliefs may have contributed to other people’s problems with the disease.

In reality, most people with depression can trace it back to an environmental cause, though the actual nature of those causes can vary greatly, from interpersonal problems to physical injuries to any number of odd and unexpected things. But of course, if the causes are so varied and widespread, why do some people suffer from it and not others? This is where the genetic component comes in: theoretically, genes may provide a predisposition towards depression in some people, explaining why they react differently to others when presented with the same stimulus. As a general rule of thumb, this is usually how genes work: they can only create a predisposition towards certain behaviours, which is then fulfilled or altered by environmental conditions. Some predispositions are easily changed, whilst others require a more complex confluence of factors before they will start to shift, but generally speaking, humans have evolved to be highly malleable and to adapt to a wide range of environments – including entirely artificial environments of their own creation. Indeed, one of the largely unique functions of the human brain is its ability to override its own predisposed behavioural patterns, which is why we can adapt so readily to new environments, and is also why we possess some semblance of biologically-constrained free will. Additionally, contrary to what you may at first assume, knowledge of our genetic predispositions doesn’t excuse behaviour (ie. you won’t be able to say, “this person has the dickhead gene, therefore they can’t help being a dickhead”) – in fact, this knowledge is actually more likely to make it easier to change these predisposed tendencies. In much the same way that it’s easier to control your hands when you can see what they’re doing, as opposed to groping about in the dark, self-knowledge often empowers the brain to overcome its own limitations. So, you know, it’s not something we should be particularly afraid of, even though many people seem to be, in my own experience at least.

The real trick here, if you want to understand how human behaviour works, is trying to unravel a tremendously convoluted chain of cause and effect – which is why simplistic explanations like “genes cause depression” usually fall apart fairly quickly. I expect the actual answers will be somewhat harder to pry out.

While we’re on the subject, one interesting point to come out of this discovery is that a genetic predisposition to depression may help strengthen the theory that depression has some adaptive value, under the right circumstances. This will largely depend on whether these genes have been actively selected for, as opposed to just being a harmful mutation or an unfortunate by-product of some other beneficial process. Whilst depression is generally a debilitating problem, especially once it spirals out of control, it is also unusual in the sense that it actively reshapes the brain’s thought processes to make it better at solving problems. Most of the harmful symptoms of depression only occur because the brain is devoting too much of its finite resources to this effort, thereby neglecting other important functions. Which means that if depression occurs in response to a genuine problem, the person may well be in the optimum position to solve this problem, assuming their depression doesn’t go too far and drag them under entirely. If it does give people an edge when it comes to problem-solving, then this benefit may be enough for natural selection to favour it, despite the unpleasant side effects (especially if the side effects of failing to solve problems are significantly worse, which is not hard to imagine). But this idea is still fairly speculative, and the debate is far from over.

To return to the original article, we should probably ask the question: did the reporter actively misunderstand the concept, or were they simply trying to create a quick summary and didn’t realise the implications of their imprecise language? (This is a common problem in science – as I have often discovered in the past, even if you have a basic understanding of a concept, there’s still like a thousand ways you can get the terminology wrong.) Or alternatively: is it perhaps an accurate record of an overzealous announcement by one of the research teams in question? Well, here is one of the papers referenced in the article, so check it out for yourself. You’ll notice they are rather more conservative in their wording, revealing the actual nature of their discovery: they are merely documenting an interesting and potentially significant correlation, not the be-all and end-all causal link suggested by the subsequent article reporting their findings. Unfortunately, as usual, the real science is rather more boring and messy than most people would like.

Ultimately, this is just another reminder to remain skeptical about information that has filtered through the science news cycle.

Depression

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

A few weeks ago, in that entry I wrote about happiness and belief, I briefly mentioned depression and how it may be related to a breakdown in the way the brain processes belief, and I also linked to this article which explains some of the physiological changes the brain goes through during depression, and the possible evolutionary causes behind this changes (it’s not the only thing I’ve read on the subject by the way, it’s just a convenient summary). I’m going to expand on that part a little more here. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I really want to talk about this, but I guess we’ll see how it goes.

As I said in that previous entry, beliefs act as a sort of interconnected network of proven, reliable thoughts, and we use this network to interpret new information. We build up our beliefs through experience and education, and strengthen them through repetition – which is not always a good thing. Due to our limited knowledge, we are forced to adopt illusory beliefs in order to function. But whilst in an ideal world these could just be necessary stepping stones to increased knowledge, in the real world we tend to buy into these false beliefs, and fall into repetitive patterns of behaviour, stunting our growth. Human behaviour often moves in repeated patterns, after all, because the overriding influence on our psyches is fear – the central survival instinct – and anything we can do to placate that fear is something we naturally want to stick with and reuse over and over. We all have our individual tics, unique ways of doing things, flaws, bad habits. Sometimes these patterns are relatively harmless; sometimes they are an inconvenience but still bearable; other times, they can significantly impact our ability to function.

This network of beliefs exists on a deeper level than conscious thought, and so we don’t normally notice its existence or reflect on it at all. Moreover, if you were to try and analyze your own beliefs, you would have to use your belief network to do so, which means it is not possible to gain a truly objective view of them. This is important to keep in mind, because the result is that reflecting on your own beliefs usually just reinforces them, even if you are genuinely trying to find fault. If you could see the flaws in your beliefs you would have accounted for them already; it’s the flaws you can’t see that are the real problem. And considering our finite knowledge, you can be quite certain that such flaws do exist, and that you’ll probably end up encountering them at some point in the future. What happens next, however, is far more important – because you can either acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, or you can try and preserve your beliefs by rationalizing the discrepency away (in other words, you can turn justified belief into blind faith). This is why most people generally don’t change their beliefs much, because unfotunately, rationalizing them is simply the much easier option. After all, our brains are extremely powerful rationalizing machines. This gives us a rather astounding capacity to understand the universe around us, but only if we employ this power wisely.

When people do change their beliefs – and I’m talking about major, significant changes here, like switching religious or political allegiances – it is often the result of a rare and devastating blow to their entire belief system, which leaves them with little choice but to change their ways. This is not always the case, of course, but it accounts for most sudden and short term changes. When people change their beliefs through reflection and personal growth, it usually takes a lot longer for the changes to manifest, as they sort through all the details at their own pace. For example, I gave up my religious beliefs quite voluntarily, but I also did it over a very long period of time, as I was never faced with any direct challenges to my beliefs. I just gradually changed them on my own terms, as I learned more about the world and decided that some of the things I had been taught to believe were wrong. I realised fairly early on that the idea of a “god” in the conventional sense was a rather tenuous concept, but I held onto other aspects – like an afterlife of some sort – for quite a bit longer, purely because of the basic appeal of the idea. And that’s the thing with a lot of false beliefs: because they have no basis in reality, they are free to appeal to our emotions without being constrained by truth, like any good piece of fiction. They can be extremely hard to dislodge – except under special circumstances, when you encounter something which breaks through your rationalizations and brings the whole structure down at once.

It is this sudden and short-term collapse of the belief network which I will be focusing on here, because it seems to be one of the primary causes of depression (perhaps there are other causes as well; it probably manifests in a variety of complex ways, but this is the one I am interested in today). And as an aside, I think that this type of breakdown of beliefs also accounts for the “light” that people claim to see when they discover religion. It doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic properties of their new belief system (all you need is a concept that carries its own internal logic, as I discussed in that previous entry); rather, it is just the enormous sense of relief that comes with finding a replacement for their old and broken beliefs. Because make no mistake, when your belief network breaks down, the pressure to build it back up again is quite severe. I know, because I have experienced it firsthand. And personally, I’m just glad that I had already tried seeing that particular light – and I didn’t find any answers there, either.

(more…)

Positive Psychology

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

If you follow my twitter or liverjournal then you’ve probably seen me linking to videos from TED.com in the past. I love that site. It is basically an ideas forum, featuring short speeches by a variety of experts on diverse subjects relating to technology, entertainment and design (ie. T.E.D.). Some of the speakers are quite prominent (Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, etc) whilst others are simply there for being experts in their field, even if they aren’t celebrities. Because the speeches are generally short (usually around 18-20 minutes), I find it’s a convenient site to visit when you need to take a quick break from whatever you’re doing, or if you need something to do over lunch or whatever. Taking this approach, I’ve gradually worked my way through a large number of speeches, most of which have been really fascinating, and some of which have even been quite astounding (mushrooms! Who knew?!). There are inevitably a few weird and silly ones which really don’t seem to belong there, but for the most part, the quality has been high. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a long post linking to a whole bunch of my favourite talks, but for today, I’m just going to focus on one: Martin Seligman On Positive Psychology.

So, uh, it would probably help if you went and watched that now, but if you can’t be bothered or if you’d rather find time for it later or whatever, then here’s a quick summary: Seligman is a psychologist working on the idea of positive psychology, ie. studying what makes people happy, as opposed to the more traditional approach to psychology, studying what makes people unhappy. He briefly runs through some points on why this seemingly-minor switch in focus is actually quite important to psychology in general and has opened up new areas of understanding about what makes humans tick, but he also makes note of the advances made by the older model of psychology and why they are still important as well, even though they were only part of the larger picture which is beginning to unfold. He then explains that there seems to be different types of happiness, which can be approximated by three broad categories. The first and most obvious category is things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction, the second revolves around activities which you can lose yourself in and become completely immersed by, and the third relates to the desire for meaning and knowledge. This is the part that I found most interesting, and the reason why I decided to write this blog entry, because I can really relate to a few of the unexpected findings his studies have revealed.

Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the first category – things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction – is the most superficial and short-term form of happiness. The example he provides is the experience of eating something which is delicious to start off with, but you’re sick of it by the time you’re done eating it. This is a very fleeting form of happiness, and interestingly, you can’t really stretch it out by continually moving from one pleasurable activity to the next – it is simply not enough to provide real and long-term satisfaction. This is probably a conclusion that most people eventually reach on their own anyway, even if they don’t give it much conscious thought. People tend to naturally gravitate towards certain things which provide a deeper and more fulfilling sense of happiness, and gradually leave behind more superficial pursuits. Or else they don’t, and can’t figure out why they are unhappy.

The second category is kind of a subtle one. Again, it’s not something that usually receives much conscious thought, but I can certainly relate to the idea of losing yourself in an activity and feeling better afterwards. For me, I can most easily accomplish this through playing videogames, especially a platforming game like Mario, which doesn’t require too much planning and forethought, and instead revolves around simply being in the moment. But I can also reach a similar state of flow through writing, and occasionally, when I am drawing, though I’m still not very good at that one. There have, however, been times in the past when I’ve spent several hours in Photoshop bringing some silly comic to life, and then I look back at the time that has passed and wonder how the heck that happened. It’s easy to understand why people would seek out activities which provide that feeling of accomplishment, even if it’s not always easily obtained.

The third category, though, is the one that really caught my attention. There is a definite sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from having an understanding of how the world works, and from searching for the meaning behind what you see around you. The important thing to remember, though, is that this feeling is subjective, and entirely separate from reality – ie. it doesn’t matter if your explanations are objectively correct, it only matters that you can convince yourself that they are accurate. And because your head only contains a finite amount of knowledge, it is often very easy to convince yourself to believe in the accuracy of your own thoughts. I think a good illustration of this is religion. As an atheist, you will often find me arguing that religion is illogical, but from a certain point of view, that isn’t really accurate – all religions contain their own internal logic, and that is what makes them so appealing. They offer answers to just about any question you can think of, so if you accept that internal logic, you are essentially given a complete worldview, which is a very basic human desire. I think this stems from the fact that our brains evolved to understand the real world, and it wasn’t until they had grown much more powerful that we started turning our thoughts towards abstract concepts. Hence, we had no mechanisms for discerning objective truth, because until then, everything had been literal and there in front of us. Additionally, because we lacked a true understanding of the world anyway, we really relied on illusions for much of our development, until we could finally advance far enough to supplant these illusions with the real answers. Modern scientific progress is largely just a process of stripping those illusions away, one by one, so that hopefully we can make some progress towards a more accurate understanding of the universe.

So uh basically, the problem is not that religion is illogical, but that in order to accept the logic it offers, you need to ignore reality, which inevitably contradicts it.

But I’m digressing from my original point here. Regardless how and why this desire for understanding developed, it’s safe to say it definitely exists. We have an undeniable curiosity, and a need to at least feel like we understand things, even if we are merely operating under illusions because we’ve reached the limits of our comprehension. This desire to learn is what makes us so intelligent, but also what leads us into logical traps that provide that contented feeling, despite being built around inaccurate logic. In many ways, the goal of a skeptic is to avoid that feeling of contentment, because there are still so many things that we don’t know, so however much we feel like we understand the world, the only thing we can really know for sure is that we are still held under the thumb of illusions that we don’t even know are there. That, I think, is the real strength of a skeptical worldview: not that it explains everything, but that it reminds you that you can’t explain everything. In spite of our awesomely powerful ability to rationalize abstract concepts, we are not truly rational beings, and our preconceptions can’t be trusted.

Interestingly, there could well be a fine line between this type of happiness, and depression. According to one possible explanation, depression is the result of a breakdown of that feeling of understanding, so that the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore. It stems from encountering a problem or problems which can’t be easily solved, thus sending the mind off in all different directions in an effort to find that elusive explanation, so that a more stable worldview can be reestablished (hence, depression of varying levels being common amongst teenagers, as their childish illusions crash headlong into the real world). This often happens on a much deeper level than we are consciously aware of, which is why it can be difficult for depressed people to really articulate what the problem is, even though they are acutely aware of it. This makes illusions such as religion even more attractive, because without that feeling of understanding, we are lost and confused. So an explanation, even if it is merely an illusion, becomes a much more agreeable alternative… until that illusion becomes the source of the next problem, of course.

The main reason I brought up this possible link with depression is because even though the pursuit of knowledge can be a deeply satisfying form of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily result in the smiley-cheerful kind of happiness. As I said, the line between happiness and depression in this sense seems quite fine, and is largely dependent on whether your search for knowledge is yielding any results. Staring down the barrel of a particularly large problem can be quite daunting and frustrating, blurring this line even further. But just because the outward indicators of happiness are absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is unhappy. Personally, I am often told that I need to smile more, or receive enquiries as to why I am not all happy and cheerful. Often these comments are motivated by genuine concern, of course, but it can still be kind of annoying, because I actually find it far more satisfying to search for knowledge than to content myself with illusion, even if the result is that I’m sometimes too distracted to be appropriately, superficially happy. And certainly, I don’t want to discourage people from speaking up if they think someone really is depressed, because sometimes it can be vitally important to intervene when a person’s problems are getting the best of them, but just keep in mind that there are other forms of happiness aside from the more obvious and friendly kinds.

So anyway, how do you build up a stable worldview, as free from illusion as possible, when there are still so many things that we don’t know yet? You need to recognise what beliefs actually are. Despite the significance that religious folk place on their faith, the fact is, the brain processes thought and belief in the exact same way. Beliefs are merely thoughts that we hold to be unquestionably true, so much so that we don’t even really reflect on them. Which, again, makes sense in the context of brains that evolved to deal with real-world problems – once you’ve established that your prey behaves in a certain way or that certain weather cues indicate an approaching storm or a variety of other things, then it is helpful to have a method of mental categorisation that allows you to recall these tried-and-true facts immediately. So we build up webs of belief, interconnected thoughts which operate as a filter for new information, allowing us to immediately recognise familiar patterns and to interpret new patterns to the best of our existing knowledge. But when beliefs are built up around illusions, it distorts the way we view the world. An easy example is stereotypes, which cause us to place greater significance on behaviour which lines up with the prescribed stereotype, even if it is not actually typical or significant at all. Once illusions have distorted our worldview, they pave the way for further illusions, burying us under the weight of false belief.

The answer, then, is to ensure that no beliefs are held to be unquestionable. And instead of desperately clinging to our existing beliefs, we need the courage to let go of them, and search for the truth, as best we can determine it. Which, in the short term, may mean letting go of that feeling of contentment that comes from having a working understanding of the universe. Illusions, ultimately, are just another form of fleeting happiness, which cannot be sustained. And if I’m really honest, I think the ability to be consistently, superficially happy in such a flawed world as ours is something of a delusion anyway. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s worth pursuing, or anything like that. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when trying to carve out our own little place in the world.

And you’d be surprised at how much happier you feel when you let go of your illusions, and make peace with your incomplete understanding of the universe, safe in the knowledge that there are still so many things left to learn – for an animal with a natural sense of curiosity, that is perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.