How our brain creates depression – and what does it mean for a cure?

Like my last post we are again looking for an explanation here that makes sense but more importantly shows us what we can do about depression. So there will be no talk of brain chemicals and neurotransmitters.

First we need to define something called Locus Of Control.

Locus Of Control? (“Location” of Control)

When we have a high internal locus of control towards a particular goal then we believe (subconsciously) that we are in control of the outcome. That if we work hard we will achieve a given goal. We are more motivated and much more resilient. We gain pleasure from working hard towards the goal. We feel energised. This increase in subconscious motivation outweighs other feelings too so we become less stressed from setbacks, we become more positive about being able to overcome problems. Everything seems easier.

This happens because you associate the goal with your chances of survival, prosperity and reproduction. From working towards your job to spending time strengthening social relationships. So as far as your emotional subconscious brain is concerned you are working towards a survival goal and your chances of achieving it are good so it is time and energy well spent. So you are privileged with high motivation and positivity.

The opposite is true when you feel like you have very little control over the outcome. This is sometimes known as an external locus of control as you believe the outcome is outside of your control, that there is no way you can make it happen. As a result you are much less motivated towards the goal. This makes sense, as there is no point spending time and energy trying to do something we don’t really believe is possible. You become a lot less resilient when trying to achieve this goal, everything feels like a lot of effort and you don’t even want to try. You become pessimistic and give up more easily. The task becomes less pleasurable. This saves you wasting energy on things that are impossible or unproducitve. Sometimes this low internal locus of control is referred to as “learned helplessness”.

Understanding Depression

The human body is a complex system. So there are many different ways of understanding and describing depression. However the best explanation of depression for us is one that helps us understand what we can to do to alleviate and manage it.

“Low levels of this neurotransmitter affects that brain chemical… blah blah blah” isn’t a very useful explanation unless you are a pharmacist. Another way of explaining depression is to list all the symptoms or what it feels like, this might be useful for forming a diagnosis but not for doing much about it.

This post is a more useful explanation that hopefully puts depression in context.

Emotions, feelings, motivation (or a lack of them in the case of depression) have been shaped by evolution to help our ancestors survive in their natural environment. So we feel good after a good night’s sleep, a filling meal, or spending time socialising. (Social acceptance and social status were very important for our ancestor’s survival. Getting kicked out the tribe could have meant certain death. Being high up in your tribe would have had many advantages.)

We feel negative emotions towards things that weren’t good for our survival and prosperity like pain from an injury, discomfort when too hot or too cold, tiredness when we are sleep deprived, or upset when we lose someone within our social circle.

Although sometimes these feelings weren’t very pleasant to experience they increased our ancestor’s survival more often than not so they became a permanent part of our brains. Evolution lead to us being good at survival, not good at being happy. Depression is one of these traits that increased our ancestor’s chances of survival in their natural environment. You could describe it as being outdated in a way, or as going a bit haywire in our modern day world.