Depressed States May Trigger Need to Analyze Complex Problems

In a fascinating article recently published in Nautilus,1Matthew Hutson takes a look at psychological research, which poses a very interesting view of depression. He showcases work done by Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada, who presents the argument that perhaps depressed states serve as “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.”2 This hypothesis considers many of the common symptoms of depression, such as “anhedonia,” or an inability to feel much pleasure, increased time spent in rumination, and an increase in REM sleep. These three elements seem to advocate a removal from typical pursuits of everyday life, and an increased focus on understanding or solving the underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.

The Vis Medicatrix Naturae

The state of depression, therefore, serves as a period of time, which is different from the norm of everyday life, an “altered state” meant to divert attention to whatever painful stimuli led to the upset. This could help explain why individuals perceive benefit from ruminating during depressed states, such as assessing problems and preventing future mistakes.3This perspective puts great emphasis on the need to use a depressive state as a means of directing where the consciousness wants to go in order to glean some important meaning, or life lesson. From a naturopathic standpoint, this is the vis medicatrix naturae,as the interrelationship of the mind-body directing the consciousness in considering exactly what needs to be processed in order for healing to occur.

A Psychologist’s Standpoint

Laura King, a psychologist from the University of Missouri, adds to this discussion with the assertion that this meaning is derived from ‘a difficult situation’ based upon the amount of time spent ‘reflecting on the difficulty,’ not the level of difficulty. From this perspective – depressive episodes as a means of figuring out an emotional dilemma – antidepressants, of any kind, even herbal therapies, are an incomplete treatment.4 They don’t specifically address any needed mental/emotional processing. Some sort of psychological therapy also needs to be utilized.

Reframing Depression

This perspective is meant as a means of reframing depression, and not belittling those who suffer from it. Depression is a debilitating condition, and often people become stuck for years in spirals of dysfunctional thinking. However, understanding, or considering that the original onset of the depression could have been to serve a vital and healthy purpose may be empowering to many who view themselves as having something “wrong” with them.


  1. Hutson M. Does Depression Have an Evolutionary Purpose? Some psychologists believe suicide and depression can be strategic.Nautilus. February 9, 2017. have-an-evolutionary-purpose. Accessed on February 18, 2017.
  2. Andrews PW,  Thomson JA.  The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychol Rev.2009; 116(3): 620–654. Doi: 10.1037/a0016242
  3. Baracaia S, Watkins ER, Why do people ruminate in dysphoric moods? Personality and Individual Differences. 2001; 30(5):723-734. Doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(00)00053-2
  4. Schlegel RJ, Hicks JA, King LA, et al. Feeling like you know who you are: perceived true self-knowledge and meaning in life. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2011;37(6):745-56. doi: 10.1177/0146167211400424.

    Node Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine amongst the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend campout where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision. 

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