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Evolutionary Explanations of Mental Disorders

By Dr George Varvatsoulias

Although depression is regarded as an abnormal condition with aspects of maladaptive processes for the individuals that having it, it is considered as an experience that it had evolved, and indeed for the following reasons: 1. Depression has a universal value; it cn be found in most, if not all, societies with a lifetime risk of around 20% (Kessler et al., 1994) 2. Both, traditional as well as industrialised societies demonstrate depression as a disorder (Howells, 1979)

Two major theories for the evolutionary value of depression

1. Social Navigation Hypothesis (SNH) SNH assumes that depression has evolved to serve two social problem-solving functions (Watson & Andrews, 2002): Limited cognitive resources for individuals to find their way out of complex social problems, known as social rumination functions It elicits help from potential conspecifics (partners, relatives, spouses, families, kin) - social motivation hypothesis - <-- It is not so, the idea of improving the fitness of the depressive individual, in terms of evaluating the issue of sacrifice as being worth for --> but because in this way by eliciting help from others one does maximise ones fitness in terms of feeling


The social competition hypothesis (1)

Depression is argued as a process of adaptive responses of losing a position or status over a conflict which took place within a group, and as part of unfulfilled interrelationships. That occurs in terms of a threefold account: Ceasing competitions against others Acceptance by withdrawal from the conflict Submissive behaviour (Price et al., 1994)

1. 2. 3.

The social competition hypothesis (2)

Depression is considered an adaptive response because individuals by having lost a status from higher-rank others, they look to occupy the lost space via subordinating themselves to a position that wont affect the dominant hierarchy In such a way, conflicts are not continued and depression proves to be related to a loss of energy, moody behaviour, and lack of confidence: all typical characteristics of depression Most likely, evolutionary explanations on depression refer to unipolar depression, and not to bipolar depression, which may also be connected to physiological changes (neurotransmitter and hormonal levels)

Evaluation of the social competition hypothesis

Depression is a yielding signal: An important aspect of this theory is that depression is the subordinate behaviour of the loser coming out of the winners dominance over a situation that the former was unable to fight for. For the loser to overcome from the competition he lost, reconciliation should take place, so social harmony to be restored and personal damage to be kept at a less possible limit (Brown et al., 1995) Is depression an adaptation? Depression may be an adaptation at its less emotionally expression level. On the other hand, the case about depression should be that it can be developed to a serious medical problem. By inhibiting dangerous and wasteful temptations in view not to challenge authority, or the system, it does not mean

The social rumination function of depression (1)

Divorce or unemployment are at risk in triggering a depressive episode because they place great cognitive demands to the individuals concerned. In order, such a situation to be dealt with, individuals shut down involvement in other interests or activities, so to focus more at the problem in hand The SNS speaks about anhedonia (loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities) as a result of a displaced cognitive effort that hasnt been fulfilled

The social rumination function of depression (2)

Individuals who do not suffer from depression tend to interpret their behaviour in terms of a self-serving bias (SSB) by attributing their successes to their abilities, and their losses to chances, or to a lack of effort. Individuals who do suffer from depression, they do not attribute their successes or losses as the above individuals, displaying therefore a depressive-attributional style (DAS). However, it is clamed that those with SSB have a distorted view of reality, and that those with DAS may be more accurate (Ackermann & DeRubeis, 1991)

The social motivation function of depression (1)

Depression is costly and depressive individuals influence their social milieu either by asking for help or by suffering many personal costs. Depressives are looking for investment in order to fulfill their normal activities, and in this way they impose on others the need to be alleviated by the condition

The social motivation function of depression (2)

Depressives by eliciting help from potential others, they ask from them to extort their moody feelings in order not only to have a better life, but also in view to reducing the tensionsuffering costs which the entire society is shouldered because of them. This is called extortionary depression, a fitness-extortionary alarm, because in this way depressives navigate through their current problem the need to be helped and assisted (Andrews, 2002)

Evaluation of the social navigation hypothesis (1)

Displaced cognitive effort: The fact that depression serves a social rumination function comes from studies showing that depressives exhibit reduced performance on cognitively demanding tasks (intelligence tests, memory tasks) indicating that probably they are focused elsewhere

Evaluation of the social navigation hypothesis (2)

Suicide as a signal of need: Depression serves the lack of motivational functions, and it is being evidenced that proper interrelationships (marriage, partnership, etc.) have reduced the need for suicide from depressive individuals (Hawton & Fagg, 1992). Under the extortion hypothesis, attempts of suicide impose a risk of loss on all those associated with the depressive individual (Watson & Andrews, 2002)

Evaluation of the social navigation hypothesis (3)

Anti-depressant medication: According to the SNH, antidepressants may hinder an individuals progress towards overcoming the condition by taking drugs that can be an obstacle to the depressives motivational efforts. N such a way, depressives are able to control their social environment by setting aside personal efforts against their condition

Anxiety disorders
Anxiety is often associated with fear that something may happen to an individual against the individuals fitness as well as its progress in life. Anxiety may be related to the evolutionary process, or may be part of it, assuming that we carry it forward from our ancestral past (EEA), where potential dangers were experienced

Crying out our needs

The purpose to stay alive is not only because our psychological needs, but it presupposes also biological reactions. ANS & CNS are associated with our biological reactions when we face or faced by potential dangers in our environments Biological reactions have also a social dimension. Social circumstances may evoke specific fear responses. As an example, small children cry out their need to be removed from the sight of a stranger, because they see him/her as a potential threat to their existence (Daly & Wilson, 1988; Smith, 1979)

The evolution of fears and phobias (1)

Preparedness - Instead inheriting rigid behavioural responses to particular situations that may well change over time, a more flexible arrangement could be needed in terms of an innate readiness over difficult life stressors - Seligman (1970) spoke of preparedness to indicate an innate ability of an organism to biologically been ready to learn how to deal with potentially life threatening experiences over specific situations - What Seligman implied with the aspect of preparedness, is that we are biologically inclined to react against life-threatening situations via certain associations able to take us out of potential dangers

Evaluation of the preparedness explanation (1)

- Evidence from animal studies: Evidence for biological preparedness comes mainly from non-human animals (primates). Cook & Mineka (1989) in their study on the fear of snakes in monkeys, which had never seen a reptile before and reacted fearfully, it means that fear of an unknown and assumed threatening animal is due to evolutionary factors rather than learning

Evaluation of the preparedness explanation (2)

- Cultural differences: Although biological preparedness may be the case in explaining anxiety disorders, it does not seem to have a universal value in terms of cultural presuppositions of the same fear in different societies, such as the fear of spiders or mice (Davey, 1994; Reuner, 1990; Bristowe, 1945)

The evolution of fears and phobias (2)

Obsessive-compulsive disorder - According to Abed & Panew (1999), OCD is a result of adaptive responses in respect to increasing reproductive success (fitness) with those who do not have it. Osborn (1998) argues that unwanted thoughts and compulsive dispositions (washing hands repeatedly) are assumed to be ritualistic behaviours across cultures

The evolution of fears and phobias (3)

- All the above is supported by the aspect of modular mind which refers to a number of specific systems (Darwinian algorithms) that evolved to carry out specific tasks for survival reasons - According to the IRSGS (Involuntary Risk Scenario Generating Syndrome) an adaptive self-protection function - it refers to the development of behavioural strategies able to protect individuals from harm, as well as anticipating any risks in real-life situations

Evaluation of the evolutionary explanations of OCD (1)

- OCD is pervasive and universal: The evolutionary explanations of OCD indicate that obsessions and compulsions are the consequence of a psychological adaptation that most humans possess. This is thought to be consistent in findings among different studies (Osborn, 1988; Rapoport & Fiske, 1998), because OCD is universal across cultures

Evaluation of the evolutionary explanations of OCD (2)

- Gender differences: Surveys of studies have shown that mainly males suffer from that condition rather than females. Research shows that females engage in risk-taking behaviours less frequently than males (Browne, 1988). It was also shown that gender differences in age are again plausible: males are more high-risk takers before puberty, whereas females after puberty: females in greater risk of OCD due to increased activity of the IRSGS - both assumptions are contradicted in terms

Schizophrenia (1)
- Schizophrenia seems to be a disorder with strong evidence about genetic components. It is observed in families with MZ twins as being at a higher risk than DZ ones - it is always questioned this assumption/I dont think schizophrenia is due to genetic factors, although a diathesis-model may also be sustained

Schizophrenia (2)
- There are two aspects for the evolutionary onset of schizophrenia: some see it as a disadvantageous condition; some others as an advantageous one. The first is supported by the relationship between schizophrenia and language; the second by the group-splitting hypothesis

Schizophrenia and language (1)

- Schizophrenia and language seem to have evolved almost simultaneously (around 15000 yrs ago). They are thought to be due to a genetic change (mutation) which affected the development of both brains hemispheres, resulting probably to the so-called cerebral asymmetry (Crow, 2000), albeit there is counter-evidence that the brains of schizophrenics tend to be more symmetrical (Zaidel, 1999)

Schizophrenia and language (2)

- Right-handedness is a preference observed in most humans. People with schizophrenia seem to be less righthanded and indeed ambidextrous (Francks et al., 2003) - The difficulty in distinguishing between thought and speech is another aspect connecting schizophrenia to language: inconsistent thinking; thoughts that are controlled by others; thoughts that are being broadcast, or thoughts that are represented by the vices of others

Evaluation of the schizophrenia and language hypothesis (1)

- The wider problems of schizophrenia: Schizophrenia seems to be closely connected with language dysfunction. Language dysfunction impacts heavily on social behaviour. Also, delusions and auditory hallucinations are experienced within the context of normal syntax (Polimeni & Reiss, 2003)

Evaluation of the schizophrenia and language hypothesis (2)

- Punctuated equilibria: For a relationship between language and schizophrenia it has been suggested that it may be even a result of a common gene (Deacon, 1997). Although, we cannot precisely know if this is the case, it has also been suggested that both aspects relate to each other by sharing the same idea in looking for well-being fulfillment via accurately observing what environmental needs ask from individuals - a quite unclear idea, not even research-sake justified!

The group-splitting hypothesis

- Steven & Price (2000) have suggested that schizoid personalities in the ancestral environment proved to be able to split large human communities. However, personalities, according to that theory, were able to form sub-groups in terms of creating a new community with anew world view. So, does schizophrenia means creativity as well?, destructiveness?, or what else? And if so, one way or another, could its whereabouts be supported by considering them according to the survival of the fittest principle, to the expense of others? Does schizophrenia have to do with counter-evolution of the human mind, or is it part of the social struggle in a community (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and others)?

Evaluation of the groupsplitting hypothesis (1)

- Schizophrenia and Shamanism: Shamans are central charismatic figures of a community whose aspirations lead the tribe. Could it be related to religious activities performing magic, speaking to spirits, etc. - to explain schizophrenia as a universal form of personal delusion to the expense of communities unable to react logically to what the Shaman is inducing to their society (Reiss, 2002; Brewerton, 1994); or could schizophrenia be regarded as a form of behavioural specialisation in doing things that will elicit awe from others?

Evaluation of the groupsplitting hypothesis (2)

- Genetic advantages: The benefits of a disorder, such as schizophrenia, lie with the condition itself (Nesse 1999). Its effects are both cognitive and emotional. The benefits of a genetically based disorder may be found in those inheriting the gene of the condition without necessarily exhibiting or having the disorder. The benefits may have nothing to do with the changed mental life of a person, but probably with guarding the individual from infections. This could be the case when testing the relatives of people with schizophrenia for traits that would have been probably advantageous in our ancestral environment

Evolutionary explanations on abnormal conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia refer to the relationship of the individual with his/her environment Depression is a state of hopelessness in which individuals are unable to cope with everyday difficulties Anxiety is thought to have been evolved because of the adaptive values of fears and phobias Schizophrenia is thought to be related to the evolution of language, and the forming of new communities in terms of handling problems associated with the

Outline and evaluate one explanation of depression from an evolutionary perspective (12 marks) Critically consider evolutionary explanations of one or more anxiety disorders (24 marks)