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Signs directing towards hope and despair
Hope and despair

Why depression feels bad

Depression is characterised by a complex of feelings: low mood, low self-esteem, loss of motivation and energy, loss of pleasure in the world, etc. If my analysis of the purpose of feelings is correct, then it’s at least conceivable that these feelings mean something.

I wrote this article with Prof Jaak Panksepp where we try to answer the question : why depression feels bad. Our approach is to take a neuropsychoanalytic view that acknowledges that depression feels like something for a reason. If the function of the mind is to meet our needs in the outside world, then it stands to reason that the feelings associated with depression are also in some way motivated.

But this question is not typically addressed in psychiatry, rather psychiatrists concern themselves with some physical correlates of these feelings. Depression is reduced to a depletion in serotonin levels - but there is in fact no evidence to suggest that depression is caused by low levels of serotonin.

These feelings in question closely resemble those associated with grief, so it is possible that depression may have something to do with social loss. If depressive feelings are so clearly linked to the psychology of attachment and loss, we should be looking to the mammalian brain systems that evolved for the purpose of mediating attachment and loss. In studying this system, we see that mammals form attachments with their mothers, and later with sexual mates and social groups. When such bonds are broken, the animal feels bad - falls into a state of distress or panic - in order to motivate the sufferer to avoid separation and to seek reunion in order to strengthen its chance of survival.

However, if this reunion does not materalise, another mechanism kicks in which causes the animal to give up. If there is no chance of reunion, the animal needs to conserve energy and avoid predators, and stay close to home base. It is this ‘giving up’ that is the despair phase of the separation response.

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What Is a Mind?

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