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Implications of Evolutionary Theory on Psychiatry/Psychology

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The introduction of evolutionary theory in psychology over the past several decades must essentially revolutionize the fields of psychology and psychiatry. It proposes a system of ultimate explanations (Why questions...see Tinbergen's levels of analyses) to take the place of the previous ascientific explanations given by the more traditional psychoanalytic explanations of behavior (I find it interesting these theories are still being taught to graduate and medical students when the existence of Freudian forms of egos has no physiological basis).

 

The historical dilemma posed by psychology is the failure to explain why behaviors occur. Psychology has traditionally explained behavior in terms of proximate questions (how) - yet that's only half the equation. To fully understand a system it takes more than knowing how it works; one should make attempts to understand why it works. Depression has nothing to do with a suffering ego. Depression is most likely a sensitivity-based response to our enviroment that alerts us when we are doing something wrong. In most cases of depression you can immediately observe something out-of-place in the depressed patients life (or the patient merely assumes something is wrong in their life via attitudes). This has clear adaptive significance since those who are able to learn from depression by fixing whatever it is that is making them depressed will obviously leave more descendents then those who don't know they are doing something wrong (i.e. living with an abusive husband, partaking in too much self-destructive drug use, not having a home or resources, etc. - all this things would put the organism in clear danger). Depression could thus serve an adaptive function in that it our mind's way of telling us we are doing something wrong.

 

The obvious pit-fall of using evolutionary theory here is that experimentation in human-evolution must be correlational. This poises an obvious problem of inferring causation, since we can't assume the existence of a correlation implies causation. However, there are methods of acheiving a higher degree of confidence in these theories by utilizing animal models (i.e. selective breeding), and statistical techniques that allow you to eliminate some variables from being factors in causation. This allows a much greater precision in analysis than allowed by most traditional explanations of why behavior occurs.

 

I'm interested in hearing other people's thoughts on the implications of evolution in the practice of behavioral medicine...Please discuss.

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Yes, I do agree with you. When you are talking about constructs such as "ego", you are dealing less with scientific phenomena and more with "explanatory fictions". Understanding behavior in terms of it's function or a description of its "Why" is much more ultilitarian.

 

As a consequence, when we discuss the functions of behaviors, we are venturing into evolutionary territory - the function of any behavior is ultimately to make the persone who is emitting the behavior survive (or to teach him or her the skills to survive).

 

I am avidly interested in evolutionary psychology, but do find its methodology lacking; this lack is, of course, due not to poor scientists, but to the subject matter itself which demands a good deal of correlational research

 

Andrew Livanis

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Ok, I will be honest. This doesn't talk about the implications of evolutionary psychology. It seems to me that you are making a speculation about what you think is the apparent inadequacy of psychology. And also, more than half of your thread talks about your speculations concerning the cause of depression. And I'm not really sure how the last paragraph of yours ties any of this together.

 

Now that I got that out of the way, I will talk about the issues you put forth.

About depression, there are already well established theories and reasons for why this occurs, both of them psychological and physiological. While there may be a whole variety of psychological causes for what causes depression to occur, such as anxiety, trauma, mental disorders, etc., depression is also related to physical events in the brain. When you are depressed, there is a chemical imbalance within the brain. Quite literally, your brain chemistry changes when you are depressed. Depression is a physical condition, rather than a state of mind (Source: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depression.cfm). Many antidepressants that are administered to people who are depressed try to address the chemical imbalance within the brain to ease the symptoms. Also, there are many psychotherapies out there that can help someone in depression too.

 

And one more thing, modern psychology is heavily based on statistical data.

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I think though that the word evolution gets drowned out by the word psychology though in the endeavor. I mean to think of evolutionary psychology that would mean studying the psychology of other living things besides human beings, which is a field of study called animal behavior and I think it can also be called Ethology. Which means at some place on the earth someone is probably studying the psychology of a mongoose, which I find all so neat or cool.

 

So as in where did depression for instance start evolutionarily speaking? There might be some problems with this though for how far you go back. For instance with the part of our brain and related function gets the title of reptilian. I don’t know but I think it would be a bit complex and take a lot of dedicated people to apply evolution to psychology, I do think it holds the most promise though, but such was tried I think with sociobiology that probably only took a facet of what would be understood in evolutionary psychology and attempted to use it to explain far more then it could.

 

Also evolutionary psychology would require a lot more interaction with the hard sciences, like biology or chemistry for instance, and I would imagine physics to, but neurophysics aside and all that stuff, evolutionary psychology really is in its infancy so to speak, and simply doing the psychological side of it alone without actually applying the evolution aspect is not going to help it. It would become far more powerful in regards to allowing people to understand though there relationship to the environment around them, so I do hope that field keeps getting many people that want to work in it.

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There is a tendency for psychology, and rather obviously psychiatry, to focus on the abnormal, and especially the negatively abnormal. This is unfortunate, since evolution is more about the normal (the preponderance of a particular allele in a population) or the positively abnormal (the emergence of a beneficial mutation).

Separately, it is worth noting that evolution largely depends upon and is initiated by changes in behaviour which are then facilitated by genetic changes. In that regard pschology (and as noted, ethology) should be of primary interest to evolutionary biologists.

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Ok, I will be honest. This doesn't talk about the implications of evolutionary psychology. It seems to me that you are making a speculation about what you think is the apparent inadequacy of psychology. And also, more than half of your thread talks about your speculations concerning the cause of depression. And I'm not really sure how the last paragraph of yours ties any of this together.

 

Now that I got that out of the way, I will talk about the issues you put forth.

About depression, there are already well established theories and reasons for why this occurs, both of them psychological and physiological. While there may be a whole variety of psychological causes for what causes depression to occur, such as anxiety, trauma, mental disorders, etc., depression is also related to physical events in the brain. When you are depressed, there is a chemical imbalance within the brain. Quite literally, your brain chemistry changes when you are depressed. Depression is a physical condition, rather than a state of mind (Source: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depression.cfm). Many antidepressants that are administered to people who are depressed try to address the chemical imbalance within the brain to ease the symptoms. Also, there are many psychotherapies out there that can help someone in depression too.

 

And one more thing, modern psychology is heavily based on statistical data.

 

There are well established theories for the proximate mechanisms of depression, however, the ultimate (evolved, basically) mechanisms are not yet well established. Traits generally don't evolve without purpose, and hence to better understand depression it would serve psychologists a great benefit to understand the reasons for why depression might have developed in humans. Your analysis of depression provides excellent examples of the proximate mechanisms that are involved in depression, yet the analysis begs the question posed by an evolutionary perspective on depression: why would we evolve depression when it seems to be a highly maladaptive trait that should have been selected against in previous generations. From an evolutionary perspective their should have been an adaptive function of such a common trait to occur in a population.

 

 

 

Modern psychology is obviously heavily based on statistical data, but it is also based on proximate explanations of behaviors. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Thus I don't understand what you are trying to get at.

 

Again, see Tinbergen's excellent discussions on applying theories of evolution in the behavioral sciences (he won a Nobel Prize for his work in evolution after all, and his theories are widely used in evolutionary psychology).

 

Are you familiar with evolutionary psychology at all? My post makes a clear distinction in the differences between evolutionary psychology and traditional psychology. Depression was used as an example of an evolutionary perspective on a "disease" frequently discussed in traditional psychology. What I posted was a brief discussion of using theories of evolution in psychology for anyone who wasn't familar with the field of evolutionary psychology (you obviously).

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There is a tendency for psychology, and rather obviously psychiatry, to focus on the abnormal, and especially the negatively abnormal. This is unfortunate, since evolution is more about the normal (the preponderance of a particular allele in a population) or the positively abnormal (the emergence of a beneficial mutation).

Separately, it is worth noting that evolution largely depends upon and is initiated by changes in behaviour which are then facilitated by genetic changes. In that regard pschology (and as noted, ethology) should be of primary interest to evolutionary biologists.

 

 

This is exactly what I find so interesting about evolutionary psychology. Traditionally psychology has been used to examine the negatively abnormal. However, according to evolutionary theory, what we consider abnormal must have had some adaptive significance in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). This provides a very interesting lens for analysing modern treatments, and the potential for creating better treatments using evolutionary theory.

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Also evolutionary psychology would require a lot more interaction with the hard sciences, like biology or chemistry for instance, and I would imagine physics to, but neurophysics aside and all that stuff, evolutionary psychology really is in its infancy so to speak, and simply doing the psychological side of it alone without actually applying the evolution aspect is not going to help it. It would become far more powerful in regards to allowing people to understand though there relationship to the environment around them, so I do hope that field keeps getting many people that want to work in it.

 

Absolutely excellent point.

 

The field of psychology is advancing with tremendous momentum due to the abundance of tools and information available to the field of science as a whole. For a theory of behavior X to occur, there needs to be a parsimonious account of the behavior using chemical, physical, and biological mechanisms. This is occuring across the boards as psychology's levels of analyses becomes increasingly molecular.

 

Theories of evolution can function as a bridge connecting psychological theories with theories posed by other sciences. We can start explaining behavior in terms of mathematical and physical functions that should work on every level of analysis - whether it's biological, physical, or chemical - since all the sciences must necessarily work as a whole.

 

This poses an even greater question: can theories of evolution explain the most fundamental patterns of life that manipulate matter in such a way as to build orderly, reproducing, and intelligent forms of matter a la life?

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I am avidly interested in evolutionary psychology, but do find its methodology lacking; this lack is, of course, due not to poor scientists, but to the subject matter itself which demands a good deal of correlational research

 

Andrew Livanis

 

 

So let me pose a question for all: is there a way to manipulate our scientific positions around this clear methodological roadblock? How can we achieve a greater degree of confidence in evolutionary explanations of behavior when we are clearly limited by the fact that evolutionary psychology necessarily entails it's body of knowledge to rely on a great deal of correlational research?

 

Could we use genetics, or selective breeding experiments to realize knowledge we can currently only (usually) assume from correlations?

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There are well established theories for the proximate mechanisms of depression, however, the ultimate (evolved, basically) mechanisms are not yet well established. Traits generally don't evolve without purpose, and hence to better understand depression it would serve psychologists a great benefit to understand the reasons for why depression might have developed in humans. Your analysis of depression provides excellent examples of the proximate mechanisms that are involved in depression, yet the analysis begs the question posed by an evolutionary perspective on depression: why would we evolve depression when it seems to be a highly maladaptive trait that should have been selected against in previous generations. From an evolutionary perspective their should have been an adaptive function of such a common trait to occur in a population.

 

 

Modern psychology is obviously heavily based on statistical data, but it is also based on proximate explanations of behaviors. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Thus I don't understand what you are trying to get at.

 

Again, see Tinbergen's excellent discussions on applying theories of evolution in the behavioral sciences (he won a Nobel Prize for his work in evolution after all, and his theories are widely used in evolutionary psychology).

 

Are you familiar with evolutionary psychology at all? My post makes a clear distinction in the differences between evolutionary psychology and traditional psychology. Depression was used as an example of an evolutionary perspective on a "disease" frequently discussed in traditional psychology. What I posted was a brief discussion of using theories of evolution in psychology for anyone who wasn't familar with the field of evolutionary psychology (you obviously).

 

 

I am familiar with it. I realize that it was a misunderstanding on my part. It's just that when I first read it I only focused on the individual paragraphs rather than putting it all together (typical asperger thinking lol). Nothing against you, just a misunderstanding on my part.

 

But yes, I agree with you. I do notice that modern psychology doesn't really focus on why we have these negative emotions and traits, such as depression, in the first place.

 

I am afraid that my knowledge of evolutionary psychology is quite limited to be honest with you. But on the subject on depression, I would have to say, and just remember that this is what I think, that depression probably evolved as a reaction to pain. The type of pain, of course, would be psychological. I liken it to be similar to a scar, or what happens after some major physical trauma like a blow to the head or the breaking of a bone.

On a side note on this, I remember attending a lecture by a guy with Bi-Polar some time ago, and he was talking about his experience with it. He was talking about depression and mental trauma and one thing I found interesting was that when one is depressed, the brain reacts the same way if you were to suffer from some extreme physical pain or damage such as a broken bone.

Of course, thats my take on it.

 

One other thing I would like to add to this is that I find that there is a sort of social stigma when one talks about evolutionary psychology, or evolution in general for that matter. My reasoning for this is that it is probably related to the fact that we still tend to cling on to the notion that emotions and various mental processes are separate from an organism, rather than something that is part of the organism as a means for survival. And then of course it further undermines the notion that humans are above the animal kingdom, which is of course not true.

 

P.S. Do you mind forwarding info on Tinbergen's theories, or provide links?

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Absolutely excellent point.

This poses an even greater question: can theories of evolution explain the most fundamental patterns of life that manipulate matter in such a way as to build orderly, reproducing, and intelligent forms of matter a la life?

 

That would be where the term evolution comes in. I could see in reality at some point the future barring extinctions of course the evolutionary psychology probably could study the evolution of depression for instance. Such as in social animals you can already see the negative treatment can bring about behavior or symptoms that you could paralleled with depression, it might even be found that depression might be something that occurs only in mammals, and in a certain path evolutionary speaking of mammal species. I think though that with the idea of it being psychology, that its going to study primarily basically the evolution of what would pertain to psychology, but that could be in part attributed to large issues such as role of diet for instance. I cant remember the guys first name, but his last name is pinkerton, or pinker I think. He is a neuroscientist that has some pretty strong theories going. Basically he hints on an internal language for the brain in relation to behavior that I think he started when studying the brains use of language. Basically decent with modification holds true, so that would speak of a great many things, including our behavior, such as why historically do people live in societies.

 

Then again a lot of this would be hard to perfectly decide on why it exists. I mean humans learn right, so its not far fetched to think we are simply still dong a successful strategy that modern homo sapiens learned from our ancestors, more then the idea that we are “programmed” to live in societies in which language might have come from or come about overtime due to social living. You could look for more social related issues, such as shame or guilt, like why do those exist, but its complicated. The idea of a phobia has been shown to be learnable also. Humans have the most room to basically acquire data and make use of it, far more then say a zebrafish for example, which of course ultimately is reflective of biology. So overall its not going to be easy, and I think that’s where the use of the hard sciences will be crucial as to aid in what is organic in terms of behavior, example why do people act different when on drugs, and what is more of a product of that in play, such as football, or sports in general, politics or any various social institutions. Though one can see the importance that such knowledge could play if actually taken to a point in which it is empirical.

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I am familiar with it. I realize that it was a misunderstanding on my part. It's just that when I first read it I only focused on the individual paragraphs rather than putting it all together (typical asperger thinking lol). Nothing against you, just a misunderstanding on my part.

 

 

I'm not holding anything against you. We are all of inquisitive minds here and naturally we won't agree on everything. If we did we'd have nothing to learn from each other, and it would make everyone's time here a complete waste!

 

I am afraid that my knowledge of evolutionary psychology is quite limited to be honest with you. But on the subject on depression, I would have to say, and just remember that this is what I think, that depression probably evolved as a reaction to pain. The type of pain, of course, would be psychological. I liken it to be similar to a scar, or what happens after some major physical trauma like a blow to the head or the breaking of a bone.

On a side note on this, I remember attending a lecture by a guy with Bi-Polar some time ago, and he was talking about his experience with it. He was talking about depression and mental trauma and one thing I found interesting was that when one is depressed, the brain reacts the same way if you were to suffer from some extreme physical pain or damage such as a broken bone.

Of course, thats my take on it.

 

On a side (albeit related) note, I was diagnosed as being cyclothymiac (rapid cycling bipolar) at about 14. Being that I tend to consume every last bit of knowledge I can find on anything that interests me, I allowed this stigma to completely **** up my academic record and act as an excuse for my perceived social inadequacies. It was only a couple years ago I learned the root of all my pain: I was doing everything wrong. I was blaming all my problems on some mental illness someone else diagnosed me with according to some DSM definition with physical roots psychologists still can't agree on. Thus I realized one of the greatest pitfalls to the realization of a completely successful field of psychology from the following flaw: How do you know how to define something you don't even understand? Think about the implications of that and the clear impediment it poses for traditional psychology...

 

There is nothing wrong with me - I only used that label as an excuse that held me back from become a fully functioning and thriving individual. I realized I had developed a system of behaviors that was not conducive to becoming the person I wanted to be and the only way I could solve those problems was to stop blaming my "illness" and take on life head on. I became more social despite the awkardness of it all, when I wanted to stay in and do nothing I forced myself to go out or study - in a sense I put all my negative behaviors on extinction and started developing newer, more adaptive behaviors.

 

In a sense, most depressive illnesses really seem to be a sign that something is wrong (I can post data if you want, but check out some more information on evolutionary psychology and you will find allot of data that supports this claim, albeit it correlational, but I'm still thinking of ways to draw a causal connection). I mean, really when you have ever seen someone depressed who didn't feel they were doing something wrong in their life? Have you ever heard of a depressed patient who was 100% happy with their lives? NO! By definition they would, then, not be depressed.

 

One other thing I would like to add to this is that I find that there is a sort of social stigma when one talks about evolutionary psychology, or evolution in general for that matter. My reasoning for this is that it is probably related to the fact that we still tend to cling on to the notion that emotions and various mental processes are separate from an organism, rather than something that is part of the organism as a means for survival. And then of course it further undermines the notion that humans are above the animal kingdom, which is of course not true.

 

As students of the behavioral sciences it is our duty (and to me, the most thrilling part of this journey) to revise the sciences we have been indoctrinated into with the most updated and valid knowledge that exists, and that we will create in our studies. I absolutely agree with you here, cool thoughts.

 

 

P.S. Do you mind forwarding info on Tinbergen's theories, or provide links?

 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolaas_Tinbergen

 

The following primer is an excellent starting point for learning the premises that evolutionary psychology is based on. Also, note: anything you find on evolutionary psychology will more than likely reference Tinbergen. Chances are, in 100 years he will be considered the William James, or Freud, of evolutionary psychology...

 

http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html

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