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This is Good Science Journalism

March 2, 2010

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. marcodante permalink
    March 2, 2010 5:37 pm

    I find it hard to swallow the idea that those of us who suffer from some form of mental illness, do so for the greater good. Having battled depression and bipolar disorder my entire life, in addition to the trials and tribulations that afflict “normal” people, like grief and and sadness, fear and anxiety, I see no benefit in being so handicapped. I am less productive and less engaged in the world because of my disorders. In what possible way could that be beneficial to society? Marco

    • kevbonham permalink*
      March 2, 2010 6:46 pm

      Hey Marco, I think you’re right – this shouldn’t be generalized to everyone. I don’t think the point of the article is to say that depression is always a good thing, it’s just highlighting a recent potential insight into why evolution allowed it to occur. Actually, on pages 4 and 5 of the article, Lehrer goes through several objections to this hypothesis (the idea is still controvercial). on Page 5:

      “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful,” Thomson says. “Sometimes, the symptoms can spiral out of control. The problem, though, is that as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”

      If you didn’t get a chance, I highly recommend reading the whole article – I just posted a couple snippets, but I think the whole package is well worth it (and if you think something crucial is missing, I’d love to hear about it from someone that actually knows what it’s like first hand).

      • marcodante permalink
        March 3, 2010 8:51 am

        Thanks for the clarification. The article was sitting on my desk but I hadn’t had a chance to read it. When I came across your “snippets” I guess I got a little riled up. Happens once in a while when you’re bipolar.
        I have to admit I was a bit surprised by your out-takes because I’m halfway through Lehrer’s book “How We Decide” and I have found that to be very enlightening and helpful. Marco

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