The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemicby Jonathan Rottenberg
Nearly every depressed person is assured by doctors, well-meaning friends and family, the media, and ubiquitous advertisements that the underlying problem is a chemical imbalance. Such a simple defect should be fixable, yet despite all of the resources that have been devoted to finding a pharmacological solution, depression remains stubbornly widespread. Why are… See more details below
Nearly every depressed person is assured by doctors, well-meaning friends and family, the media, and ubiquitous advertisements that the underlying problem is a chemical imbalance. Such a simple defect should be fixable, yet despite all of the resources that have been devoted to finding a pharmacological solution, depression remains stubbornly widespread. Why are we losing this fight?
In this humane and illuminating challenge to defect models of depression, psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg argues that depression is a particularly severe outgrowth of our natural capacity for emotion. In other words, it is a low mood gone haywire. Drawing on recent developments in the science of moodand his own harrowing depressive experience as a young adultRottenberg explains depression in evolutionary terms, showing how its dark pull arises from adaptations that evolved to help our ancestors ensure their survival. Moods, high and low, evolved to compel us to more efficiently pursue rewards. While this worked for our ancestors, our modern environmentin which daily survival is no longer a sole focusmakes it all too easy for low mood to slide into severe, long-lasting depression.
Weaving together experimental and epidemiological research, clinical observations, and the voices of individuals who have struggled with depression, The Depths offers a bold new account of why depression enduresand makes a strong case for de-stigmatizing this increasingly common condition. In so doing, Rottenberg offers hope in the form of his own and other patients’ recovery, and points the way towards new paths for treatment.
Although clinical depression dominates contemporary culture’s discussion of mental illness, it is often treated as a chemical defect or a state that individuals can overcome through attitude changes. Drawing on epidemiological evidence and his own experimental research, psychologist Rottenberg urges that we understand depression through the science of mood, or “affective science.” In this stimulating book that synthesizes research and memoir—Rottenberg himself battled depression—he observes that mood science provides insights into why humans experience low mood—the defining feature of depression—and allows us to explore its causative forces. He calls attention to the many triggers of low mood—group separation, stress, death of loved ones—arguing that humans share a mood system with other mammals that alerts us to the ways social loss can jeopardize our survival; thus, a low mood forces a reassessment of the best course of action in a given situation. Focusing on this evolutionary understanding of depression, he concludes that low mood has benefits both for diagnosing depression and for overcoming it: “Positive moods are not only a sign... that we are on the right track and moving toward evolutionarily favored goals;... we need to understand how experience of well-being might make people do things that keep them well.” Agent: Lisa Adams, the Garamond Agency. (Feb.)
“Almost a clarion call to open the discussion about depression, remove its social stigma and break with current scientific convention to help those suffering begin their recovery.”
“With tens of millions already on antidepressants, the expense will eventually force us to reevaluate our approach to care. The Depths is a first step.”
“The personal experience of depression that Rottenberg details here lends authenticity to his mood science-focused consideration of both the origins of the depression epidemic and why it remains so tenacious and difficult to treat. As The Depths shows, our age requires innovative psychological approaches if we are to tackle the growing burden of depression and, further, to promote well-being.”
Times Higher Education
“An ambitious, rigorously researched, and illuminating journey into the abyss of the soul and back out, emerging with insights both practical and conceptual, personal and universal, that shed light on one of the least understood, most pervasive, and most crippling pandemics humanity has ever grappled with.”
“A compelling inversion of conventional wisdom, arguing that depression is not only a natural response to certain conditions, it's a state that often promotes our very survival.... Rottenberg's search for the fundamental sources of depression is strangely consoling, even inspiring at points. By accounting for depression in evolutionary terms, he decisively discredits any lingering explanations of depression as a character flaw. He also achieves something equally powerful: a nuanced assessment of the ever-shifting advantages and costs of depression in various circumstances.”
“Jonathan Rottenberg has written a brave, insightful book. The Depths challenges us to rethink our current conceptions of depression and to find new ways to help people experience, as Rottenberg so aptly puts it, ‘the glory of recovery.’”
Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic
“Rottenberg’s practical style and talent for using real-world examples by real-world people to illustrate states of low and high mood is refreshing...the book is a wonderful first step for those who wish to better understand the illness from a scientific viewpoint. And it gives the reader hope by suggesting that depression is a common, albeit painful, human experience: that a low mood does not mean we have failed.”
“The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic has the potential to revolutionize the way scientists study depression and therapists treat depression. It can provide hope for people with depression and understanding for their families.”
“A stimulating book
“In this provocative presentation of the natural history and evolution of depression, the bottom line is, strangely, both deflating and hopeful: ‘Low mood is both inescapable and sometimes useful.’”
“An important contribution to [Rottenberg’s] stated aim of promoting ‘an adult national conversation about depression.’”
“The Depths presents a paradigm-changing approach to depression by clearly and comprehensively explaining the way depression really works, describing its origins, the importance of low mood, its persistence and slide into deep depression, and most encouragingly, the climb up and out from the depths. Along the way, Jon Rottenberg dispels many myths about depression, refutes beliefs that perpetuate stigma, and shines a light on recent advances in mood science that can transform the way we think about and approach depression. Scholarly and comprehensive, yet immediately accessible and relevant, The Depths will be enormously helpful to people with depression, health care providers, and anyone who wants to understand why so many of us experience depression.”
Ann Kring, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley
“Depression is more common than it should be, and we still don’t know how to treat it. In The Depths, Jonathan Rottenberg points us in the right direction. Combining solid empirical research with individual stories, including his own struggles, Rottenberg situates depression in a broader and more logical context. In doing so, he provides compelling and important new insights about the phenomenon.”
George A. Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of The Other Side of Sadness
“It’s rare to come across new ideas on the nature of emotion. Drawing on his own groundbreaking research and the best science available, Rottenberg unravels some of the mysteries of depression. Why is it so common? Why is it so resistant to treatment? How does a normal bout of sadness transform into deep depression? This beautifully written book offers wisdom and hope.”
Todd B. Kashdan, Associate Professor of Psychology, George Mason University, and author of Curious?
“The Depths brings meaning to moods with an informed clarity that is both personal and scholarly.”
Melvin McInnis, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Michigan Medical School
“The Depths achieves a rare level of integration of a deeply personal narrative with the best of scientific thinking. Rottenberg draws from a rich array of scientific disciplines to build the case for an evolutionary model of depression. An insightful exploration of a complex and prevalent problem, this book will appeal to anyone interested in depression.”
Sheri L. Johnson, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley
“In this courageous and compelling book, Jonathan Rottenberg makes a moving appeal to bring depression out of the dark so that we can have an open conversation about one of the most dreaded mental disorders. Writing both as someone who has suffered from depression and as a scientist who has published groundbreaking work on this disorder, Rottenberg weaves a rich tapestry of personal stories and scientific findings. What emerges is a sober account of how and why depression arises, and what needs to be done. Everyone should read this book!”
James J. Gross, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
A call for a new "diagnostic and therapeutic" paradigm for treating depression by framing it as a mood disorder rather than a disease. Rottenberg (Psychology/Univ. of South Florida; co-editor: Emotion and Psychopathology: Bridging Affective and Clinical Science, 2007) calls attention to the epidemic increase of depression--not only in America, but also in England, Canada and Italy. With more than 15 percent of the population affected by depression, he writes, it is threatening to become "a preeminent public health menace." Despite the massive resources devoted to research and treatment of the disease, "it is striking people at younger and younger ages." Drawing on his own experience as director of the USF Mood and Emotion Laboratory and as someone who himself underwent a multiyear bout of deep depression, he points to disappointing progress in the development of effective antidepressants over the past 60 years, when the rate of recurrence is factored in. The author explains that mood serves an evolutionary function that we share with other mammals; it helps to tune behavior "to situational requirements" in ways that we are mostly unaware of. From an evolutionary perspective, an ordinary sad mood "makes people more deliberate, skeptical and careful in how they process information from their environment." In Rottenberg's opinion, our cultural emphasis on being upbeat can be counterproductive. The human capacity for reflection can derail this semiautomatic process when we seek to enhance pleasurable upbeat moods and worry about being depressed. By shifting our attention to our own mental processes, we risk losing sight of broader goals. Rottenberg does not dismiss the benefits of talk therapy and medications to treat depression or deny the role of genetic predisposition. His laudable aim is to broaden the discussion. An important contribution to his stated aim of promoting "an adult national conversation about depression."
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