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Mental Smoke Detectors with Randy Nesse
Episode 24 // Released September 13, 2019
In this episode of Big Biology, Randy Nesse delves into how our minds have evolved alongside our bodies and the modern field of evolutionary psychology.
Randy is one of the founders of the field of evolutionary medicine, where he and other psychologists apply evolutionary biology to the practice of medicine--particularly psychiatry.
He is most interested in the fragility of our minds, exploring the question of why we are vulnerable at all to mental problems like anxiety or depression.
He argues that many of our good and bad feelings have adaptive functions. Some may not be fun, and at times might be outright destructive. But they can also be incredibly useful.
According to Dr. Nesse, evolutionary medicine provides a framework through which to understand our mental vulnerabilities as evolutionary vestiges and both treat and harness them as such.
For early humans, the world was a dangerous place. They worked hard to find enough food while avoiding danger from predators and humans they didn’t know.
But perhaps the single most important thing for our ancestors was navigating the complexities of living in groups, with humans they did know.
Evolutionary psychiatrist Randy Nesse argues that all of those ancient pressures profoundly shaped how our minds work today.
Randy is one of the founders of the field of evolutionary medicine and a Professor at Arizona State University where he applies evolutionary biology to the practice of medicine and particularly psychiatry.
Instead of asking how someone became depressed or anxious and could get better with drugs or therapy, typical medical approaches, Randy wants to know why our minds are so fragile in the first place. His recent book, “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings,” considers evolutionary explanations for our emotions and behaviors.
Randy says it’s not that anxiety represents an overly-sensitive alarm system, it’s that the cost of a false alarm is far smaller than the cost of no response.
“The right question is in what situation has this particular suite of changes given advantages? Once you ask that question anxiety becomes much easier,” he says. “In situations of danger anxiety helps you get the heck out of there, and prevents you from going back to situations that are dangerous.”
According to Randy, many of our good and bad feelings have some adaptive functions. He thinks of them like coughing or vomiting or even diarrhea: they’re often not fun, and sometimes they’re outright gross, but they can be incredibly useful.
On this episode of Big Biology Art and Marty talk with Randy about how he and other psychiatrists use evolutionary biology to understand the origins of the fragile mind, and come up with new ways to treat affected people with more creativity and compassion.
The fields of evolutionary medicine, and particularly evolutionary psychiatry, are relatively new, and Randy hopes that his ideas will become a normal part of medicine in the future.
Here are links to a few of the resources we talked about on the episode or used to prepare for the interview:
Drawing on revealing stories from his own clinical practice and insights from evolutionary biology, Nesse shows how negative emotions are useful in certain situations, yet can become overwhelming. Anxiety protects us from harm in the face of danger, but false alarms are inevitable. Low moods prevent us from wasting effort in pursuit of unreachable goals, but they often escalate into pathological depression. Other mental disorders, such as addiction and anorexia, result from the mismatch between modern environment and our ancient human past. And there are good evolutionary reasons for sexual disorders and for why genes for schizophrenia persist. Taken together, these and many more insights help to explain the pervasiveness of human suffering, and show us new paths for relieving it by understanding individuals as individuals.
The next time you get sick, consider this before picking up the aspirin: your body may be doing exactly what it's supposed to. In this ground-breaking book, two pioneers of the science of Darwinian medicine argue that illness as well as the factors that predispose us toward it are subject to the same laws of natural selection that otherwise make our bodies such miracles of design. Deftly summarizing research on disorders ranging from allergies to Alzheimer's, and form cancer to Huntington's chorea, Why We Get Sick, answers these questions and more. The result is a book that will revolutionize our attitudes toward illness and will intrigue and instruct lay person and medical practitioners alike.
An Evolutionary Perspective on Psychiatry (Comprehensive Psychiatry, 1984): Randy has been studying the links between evolution and medicine for a long time. In this 1984 paper argues that some bad feelings could have adaptive functions and that doctors should consider evolution when treating patients.
The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine (The Quarterly Review of Biology, 1991): On this episode we focused on psychiatry, but Randy also applies evolutionary thinking to other areas of medicine. In this paper he discusses how evolution should shape our thinking about infections, fever and toxins.
Nessays: Short pieces by Dr. Nesse on evolutionary medicine, constructive engagement, and schools of thought.
MEET THE GUEST
Name: Randy Nesse
Institution: The Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University
Area of Expertise: Evolutionary Medicine
Lab Website: https://www.randolphnesse.com/homepage
“Smoke detectors give us false alarms, but we put up with them because we know we want that smoke detector to go off every single time there is a real fire … If the cost of a response is kind of low, even a panic attack costs 100 calories, but not having that response could be disastrous, like the lion actually gets you … Natural selection is going to shape that response to go off every time there’s a small chance the lion is present.” -Randy Nesse
“The right question is in what situation has this particular suite of changes given advantages? Once you ask that question anxiety becomes much easier. In situations of danger anxiety helps you get the heck out of there, and prevents you from going back to situations that are dangerous either physically or socially. And that takes us to, oh wow, anxiety is actually useful.” -Randy Nesse