Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The mind, as it evolves - Los Angeles Times

The mind, as it evolves - Los Angeles Times

IN the fall of 2005, psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson Jr. was treating an 18-year-old college freshman whom he describes as "intensely depressed, feeling suicidal and doing self-cutting."

A few years before, Thomson says, he would have interpreted her depression as anger turned inward. But instead he decided that her symptoms might be a way of signaling her unhappiness to people close to her.

He discovered that his client's parents had pressured her to attend the university and major in science, even though her real interest lay in the arts. In the course of therapy, he helped her become more assertive about her goals. When she transferred to another school and changed majors, he says, her depression lifted.

Thomson based his approach on the idea that depression is not simply a disease to be eliminated, but a way of eliciting support from family and friends. It's a concept derived from evolutionary psychology, a burgeoning field that is starting to influence psychotherapy.

Evolutionary psychology sees the mind as a set of evolved mechanisms, or adaptations, that have promoted survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychopathology — abnormal psychology through an evolutionary lens — looks at what has gone wrong.

The discipline is so new that "some people would say it hasn't started yet," jokes Randolph M. Nesse, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, and one of its pioneers. No one paradigm has won universal acceptance. Evolution-based therapies rely on an eclectic mix of techniques, and their effectiveness is still being tested.

Some evolutionary psychologists emphasize the benefits of what we label as disorders. For example, Edward H. Hagen, a research scientist at Humboldt University in Berlin, with whom Thomson has collaborated, has argued that depression, suicide attempts and deliberate self-harm are rational bargaining tactics to manipulate others into providing support they might otherwise withhold.

Stephen S. Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, suggests that depression results from a "mismatch" between human beings adapted for hunter-gatherer societies and the contemporary world. His therapy — which he calls "therapeutic lifestyle change" — emphasizes behavioral remedies, including getting more sleep, consuming more omega-3 fatty acids and increasing social interaction.

A third school of evolutionary thought sees mental disorders as the result of an accumulation of harmful genetic mutations — flaws in the system.

Many clinical psychologists remain skeptical of all these divergent evolutionary approaches, as well as efforts to devise treatments based on them.

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