#19: The science behind depression

The science behind depression: Episode Notes

Studies on depression have been changing their approach in recent years.

In the past, there was a tendency to categorize all people with depression under the same umbrella, without really distinguishing specific problems with functioning.

Nowadays however, neuroscientists have started to focus more on how differences in neural and psychological systems can lead to functional impairments in our daily lives, rather than focusing on typical symptoms. This approach can better help identify targets for treatment.

In people who are affected by depression, one key brain network that is found to be abnormal is the reward network, which includes the “pleasure center” of the brain.

In depressed individuals these reward centers in the brain tend to be under-active. Practically speaking, this means that people with such characteristics don’t enjoy things as much as they would normally do, and they have much less drive to go out there and seek rewards.

The inactivity that often follows a drop in motivation normally generates negative thoughts, as well as a sense of guilt. This feeling is even stronger for highly ambitious people, as they realize that they are far from the way they should behave according to their own standards and expectations. 

How can we make things better? 

  • On an individual level, start talking openly about our mental health to break the stigma for ourselves, and for others. The first step could be to reach out to someone we trust, and would not judge us, so that we can begin to share our experiences and our feelings. Following this, we could then find others to open up to whom we might not be so close to. This process will allow for opportunities for positive reinforcement, giving us confidence to be more and more open about our own mental health.
  • On an organizational level, it would be best to first identify what policies and support systems are already in place, as these might not be properly advertised. Where there are not enough measures (or none at all), change would likely require big shifts in organizational culture, so it would make sense to start small, identify people who could be mental health ambassadors and help push initiatives forward. The ultimate goal would be to normalise mental health issues at work. 

What other knowledge from neuroscience could be helpful to us? 

  • People can experience depression in many different ways.
  • “Smiling depression” is a high functioning type of depression, where individuals can lead a seemingly normal life and even maintain a mostly healthy lifestyle. On the outside, many depressed people might look just fine. However, this could be a mask, or a coping strategy to hide their true feelings. Many high-performers experience this kind of depression, and it can be one of the hardest to treat as it often goes unnoticed until it is too late and people are already in crisis or commit suicide.
  • The negative thoughts associated with lack of motivation when experiencing depression are actually generated by biological changes in the brain, not just mere laziness.
  • For this reason, it is really important not to beat ourselves up or feel guilty for not fulfilling ambitious goals, or even being able to do basic activities when depressed.
  • In many cases, we can change our biology through professional psychotherapy or even using self-help tools, depending on how severe our depression might be.
  • People suffering from depression often have a very hard time to fight their condition on their own, and should seek professional help whenever necessary.

Our Guest: Elliot Brown

Elliot Brown Profile Picture

Elliot is a neuroscientist and mental health advocate who has been doing clinical research in psychiatry for the last 12 years. He wants to get people talking openly about their own mental wellbeing, and to see mental health treated equally as general physical health.
Elliot has lived experience of mental health problems, spent lots of time with people suffering from serious mental illness, and has seen how mental health is tragically neglected on many different levels. He wants to change this.
One way he is making a change is by raising awareness about the brain and mental wellbeing, especially for academia and in the workplace.


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