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Depression Theory (Main)

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Saying that depression is “just a chemical imbalance” is the equivalent to walking into a doctor’s office with a javelin wound, and them telling you it's just "a blood imbalance.”

Truth is, there's a reason why people get depressed, just as there's a reason why someone might be experiencing a blood imbalance, and in this post I want to talk about why people get depressed.

What's the universal cause of depression?

Because if there were some kind of universal cause to depression—just supposing there were—then perhaps, we might want to know what that universal cause was. And that's the real point of this post: By understanding the What of depression (the causes) we can then avoid the pitfalls.

At least, that's the idea.

Presently, if you were to ask any doctor why you're depressed or where depression comes from? About the only thing they'll say is, “Depression is likely brought about by a stressful life event.”  Peering over their DSM-5, they can tell you all about what depression "looks" like, but if you continue to press them about where it comes from they won't be able to tell you anything conclusive. And it's not because they're being coy or something like that, it's because they genuinely don't know. Doctors truly don't have a good theory for depression or even understand what it is yet.

Again, they can point out the symptoms and they can show you pictures of what a depressed brain looks like...but they don't really understand how depression forms or why. 

Of course, if you’ve got yourself a good doctor (one who’s actually current with all the neuroscience literature) they might tell you about the default mode network and rumination, topics we’ll be discussing very soon. But even then, rumination and a hyperactive default mode network aren’t the root causes of depression they're just symptoms, in much the same way that bleeding out is a symptom of javelin wounds.  It is true that depression and anxiety are underpinned by a hyperactive default mode network (DMN) and that rumination contributes to the hyper-connectivity of this network, but there's still a root cause that sets off this whole chain of events and that's what I'd like to share with you today: Ten findings in neuroscience that blow apart the current "chemical imbalance" narrative (Link to Video). But—and here's the important part—we're not just going to show you why the current narrative is wrong, we're going to explain scientifically 'what' depression is, 'where' it comes from, and 'how' to avoid falling in yourself.

So how are we going to do this?

First I’m going to give you a table of contents. I’m going to give you the 10 points you have to know for this idea to make sense. After that I’m going to go into slightly more detail about each point...I’m going to connect all the dots for by the end you can see how rational this idea actually is.

So first, # 1 - What is the brain ‘for’?

Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Wolpert has a lovely TED talk explaining why we have brains, but the quick pitch is we have brains for one reason and one reason only and that’s to produce complex and adaptable movements.

The way Dr. Karl Friston puts is, “If you think about it, there’s very little you can do, apart from secretion, without movement…without your body." Walking, speaking, writing…hell even thinking involves moving your eyes about. People use their hands when they talk because fundamentally we use our bodies to communicate with the world. Our brains are designed to help us move through space and avoid potential threats, and if you think about it, not all life on this planet has brains. In fact, most don’t.

Plants make up 80% of the Earth’s biomass and yet they don’t have brains in the traditional sense of the word, so movement is really why we have brains.

#2 - What are memories ‘for’?

We store memories about past events so that we can simulate possible futures. Again to avoid potential threats, to guide future actions and future behavior we store memories about what happened in the past so that we can figure out how to best act in the future.

#3 - The brain isn’t all wired together.

The brain is very compartmentalized with highly specific areas sometimes devoted to one and only one function. And we know this is the case by studying patients who’ve suffered either lesions or stroke. So parts of your brain may know one thing, while other parts do not.

For example, we can all type on a keyboard without looking, but if I put a blank diagram of a keyboard in front of your face and asked you to fill it out with a pencil, I bet you couldn’t do it.

—Just because your fingers may know where all the keys are, that doesn’t mean your conscious self does and Dr. Iain McGilchrist, pretty much the world’s leading authority on bi-hemispheric specialization makes this point a dozen times over in his book about the divided brain called, The Master and his Emissary. He talks about how the two hemispheres of the brain perceive the world in different ways, quite literally, “[B]ut we’re not aware of that fact because at a level below consciousness there’s a meta-control center bringing them together. So we don’t feel like we’re in two realities, but effectively we are, because the two hemispheres of the brain have different goals, different values, different ‘takes’ on reality.” They’re both independently conscious to some extent AND if one of the hemispheres is off-lined due to lesions or stroke, each one is capable of sustaining consciousness on its own.

There’s so much we could talk about on this subject but the general takeaway is this: Effectively, you have two brains in your head.

#4 - Which follows quite nicely, is that the psychological literature is rife with the concept of multiple sub-personalities.

All the great psychologists agree that the human psyche should be divided up into multiple sub-personalities, they just don’t agree about what to call it, or how many there are for that matter.

Freud chops it three ways.

Carl Jung chops it four ways.

The neuroscientist Anil Seth chops the Self five ways.

Even Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has a schema for understanding the psyche he calls the Remembering Self and the Experiencing Self. This is all to say, yet again, that brains are complex. Human beings are extremely complicated. And we’re perfectly capable of holding conflicting viewpoints in our heads that aren’t compatible.

We don’t always know why we do what we do, why we’re mad, or what we truly believe until the situation arises. It isn’t that human beings are hypocritical on purpose, more like, we have a view of ourselves that is incomplete, and we’re not transparent with ourselves.

#5 - The way we make decisions is through committee.

Whenever you “choose to do something” you may feel an internal struggle going on in your head, but what you won’t see is all the networks of neurons that are pulling for Choice A while a completely different network of neurons is pulling for Choice B. It’s very rare that we’re ever in 100% agreement about something, so for example, if someone dumps us, there may be a part of you that’s actually happy while the majority of you is really sad.

This morning, part of me wanted to stay in bed, while the other part wanted to get out of bed and make a post about depression.

# 6 - 95-99% of our cognition is unconscious.

What we’re aware of (this tiny synthesis of sensory information happening between our ears) is only a minuscule fraction of what the brain is actually up to. So you hop on a bike and go pedaling down the street, but you’re not aware of the millions of neurons popping off in your head, hundreds of times per second, just so you can balance on a machine with two wheels. You just know how to put one foot in front of the other.

What we’re actually aware of, at any given moment, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the world of the brain. That said, there are conscious properties to consciousness and there are unconscious properties to consciousness and most of the learning that shapes our behavior doesn’t come from a lecture or a book.

It’s subconsciously worked out.

So if you go to a buffet and eat some bad shrimp, it won’t be “you” that has to work out that it was the shrimp that got you sick…your body will unconsciously learn that association (Shrimp —> Sick) even if you don’t want it to. And, what’s more, you may forever have an aversion to shrimp that no amount of conscious reasoning can talk you out of. A lot of how we learn is through trial and error. Our brain’s take statistics about what works and what doesn’t and this is precisely how you first acquired a language. When you were like two years old you didn’t learn English in any “top-down” or conscious way, it was completely bottom up. Even now, you may not be able to articulate where commas go in a paragraph, but you’d notice if one was, out, of, place. And the same could be said about the definitions to words we’ve never looked up before. You may not be able to articulate what the definition is, but you’d notice if somebody used the word incorrectly.

This is all to say that not all knowledge is articulable and conscious.

#7 - The Default Mode Network is the most likely candidate for the ego we’ve ever seen.

There are now numerous, numerous studies that suggest whenever you have over-activation in this network, you tend to have either depression, anxiety, or both. So what is the default mode network? Among many things, the default mode network is involved with self-referential thinking or autobiographical thoughts (unlinking from the present moment and thinking about ourselves).

The neuroscientist Anil Seth describes depression in three words.

Depression is: Repetitive, ruminative, thinking.

Not bad for a three-word description, but what the hell is rumination, right? Rumination is replaying an event in your mind over and over. Kind of like mental self-flagellation, people get stuck, quite literally, into thinking about that stupid thing they said or that stupid thing they did…how worthless they think they are…they replay these events over and over in their mind’s eye, engaging in these recursive negative feedback loops of which they cannot seem to escape.

All this is underpinned by a hyperactive Default Mode Network, or in plain English, an inability to stay in the present moment.

#8 - The body contains an unimaginable intelligence and complexity.

Put it this way, there’s not a single one of your direct ancestors, since the beginning of time, that failed to survive and reproduce. For at least the last 3.5 billion years, every single one of your direct line of descendants had ‘what it took’ to survive and all this genetic knowledge is now sitting inside your genes.

Inside the body your genes built.

We’re not aware of how we digest our food, or how we grow our arm air, or how we repair the tiny rips in our muscles after we work-out, or how we generate immunological responses…and we don’t have to be. Much of what we’re able to accomplish in this life piggybacks on the intelligence of the body and unconscious mind and we have to at least acknowledge that fact.

# 9 - The Iowa Gambling Task.

This is hands down one of my favorite studies ever done because it is so interesting. And basically, how it works is, you have an experimenter and a subject. And the subject is instructed to draw from four decks of cards. But what the subject doesn’t know is that the decks aren’t random, they’re rigged. Each one of the cards either gives them money or takes away money, but the subject has no idea about the rules of the game, they’re just trying to win as much money as possible.

At the very same time, the subject is hooked up to a GSR (a galvanic skin response) which measures tiny changes in the sweat glands of their skin, so it’s kind of like a lie detector. Now it usually, takes subjects around 20-30 cards to work out which decks are the most profitable decks, but here’s the kicker…

...after only 10 cards, experimenters start to see a spike in the galvanic skin response.  Indicating that the unconscious mind has already worked out which decks you should stay away from.  In other words, the body has produced a physiological response (increased sweating) about which decks you should avoid, and then...10 or 20 cards later...the conscious self works out which to avoid.

What this means is that our physiology always, always, always plays a part in our decision making, even when we think it’s all top-down logic.

# 10 - A revised modernized interpretation about the multiplicity of selves living inside your brain.

In its simplest form, when you start to divide up the psyche, the most obvious division to make is that there is a Conscious Self and an Unconscious Self. From Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, we’re introduced to the idea of the Remembering Self, which is to say that there’s a division of the unconscious that’s always focussed on the past and what happened, and when you consider its opposite you get the Prospective Self.

A division of the unconscious that’s always focused on the future.

Wishes, wants, plans, desires, hopes, dreams, expectations, reciprocity, consequences…potential. All this is contained within the Prospective Self. And the best way I know how to describe the concept of the Prospective Self is to picture an app on your phone.

The Prospective Self App.

So this would be a monitoring App that not only keeps tabs on what you say, but also tracks your movement through space, analyzing all of your bad habits and then projecting your likelihood of success into the future. That’s the Prospective Self

I think we all know when we're not living up to our full potential and perhaps when we’re giving in too much to our impulsive side, which leads us to the inevitable conclusion about what depression actually is.

“Depression is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.”

Nietzsche once said, “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings—always darker, emptier and simpler.”

And what is depression?

A feeling.

An intuition that something isn’t right.

You don’t know what it is, you just know something’s different. You don’t know why you feel so bad, you just know you used to have motivation for this thing and now you don’t anymore. You used to love life and now you don’t.

But, if you sit with that feeling long enough, you start to figure out where the depression came from.

“I’m depressed because I’m addicted to smoking weed and I can’t seem to stop.”

“I’m depressed because I’m working a dead-end job and I know I can do better.”

Essentially, when you’re not living up to your full potential—you know it.

You know it. Your friends know it, your parents know it…and if you come across someone who actually respects you enough to tell you the truth, they’ll tell you to your face.

“You’re not what you could be.”

—But even if they don’t, it won’t actually matter because guess what? Your body will let you know. It’ll send you a message. Giving you the slightest of taps on the shoulder, it’ll say, “Hey, you’re choosing from the wrong deck.”

TAP-TAP-TAP “Hey…I’m warning you.”

—Just like the Iowa Gambling Task your body will let you know when one of your selves is out of alignment.

Parting Thoughts

You know, I used to think that lying was all about telling lies...but it isn’t. Lying can be something that you act out with your body. It wasn’t until I started reading and watching Jordan Peterson that I fully understood this concept, and what he said was basically this:

If you know there’s something you should do, and you don’t do it…that’s a lie. Or if you know there’s something you shouldn’t do, but you do it anyway…that’s a lie.

It isn’t the kind of lie you tell with your face, it’s the kind of lie you act out with your body.

If I 'know' I shouldn’t come home and eat three meals back-to-back, but I do it anyway, that’s an enacted lie.

Brief Recap

We know the brain can simulate future movements, which is precisely why you can’t tickle yourself. We know that intelligence is sometimes defined by asking the question, “Can it make predictions?” So again, we ask, "What is the brain ‘for’?"

And the answer seems to be: Orchestrating complex movements.

"What is the body ‘for’?"

Moving you through space and time.

So then, why is it so crazy to believe that a body can do exactly what it was “designed” to do? In other words, why wouldn’t the body be incredibly adept at projecting and analyzing future movements based on past actions and then projecting that into the future? This is all to say that your Prospective Self has already crunched the numbers, it’s already run all the data, and it’s saying, “Look, I’ve done the math on this, and I know where you’re headed…and it doesn’t look good. So I am not going to participate in this negative spiral anymore.”

If you or someone you know is depressed, try considering the idea that depression is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. You’re not getting enough food, or you’re not getting enough sunlight, or social interaction, job-fulfillment, life-fulfillment, emotional-fulfillment, nutrition, sleep…or maybe you’re getting too much of something?

Too much food, too much sleep, too much of some negative behavior pattern you don’t want to talk about.

Last Note

About a year ago, I used to have a serous problem with stress-eating or binge-eating. My health got so bad, I actually had to go see a specialist. This guy also just happen to be a former monk, and when I was working with him he told me something I’ll never forget.

He said, “Look, there are basically two paths in this life.” Holding out his hand, he said, “There is the path of pain and there’s the path of listening.”

Most people,” he said, “choose the path of pain because they are unwilling to admit that they could be wrong or are headed in the wrong direction.”

And when you stop listening, the body stops talking.

“In the West,” I told him, “we call the the silent treatment.”

And I was kind of half-joking at the time, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense, because people who are depressed no longer have enjoyment or motivation for the things they once loved. Their body is no longer rewarding them with those feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins. You know all those chemicals that make you feel alive? Provide the echo of experience that makes life worth living? Well, when you get depression, all that dries up until you wise up.

The body is saying, “I don’t agree with your actions, I don’t agree with your direction, and I’m no longer going to participate until you get out of this negative spiral.”

That’s depression in a nutshell.

("Depression in a Nutshell" a chapter adapted from Consciousness in a Nutshell, which is available for purchase on our site, Amazon, and many other online retailers).

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For more on depression, and this theory, check out our latest post.

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