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February 24, 2014

On a given day, the new-book shelves might seem exciting or depressing, depending on your mood or temperament. There are novels of murder and mayhem, decline and ennui, misunderstanding and poor personal choices. In short, all the greed, hatred, and delusion we as a species are capable of.

Then there’s all that but in nonfiction: banking, politics, true crime (or am I repeating myself?), history, science. Understanding is one challenge, behaving well another.

One very serious lighthearted new book is called “Experimenting on a small planet: a scholarly entertainment” by William W. Hay, UC-Boulder. It’s a fat book, but one is explicitly advised not to read it cover-to-cover.

Pick among the chapters, all dealing with science and history of science (and personal reflections) that touch on climate, such as “Geologic time,” “Documenting past climate change,” “The nature of energy received from the sun,” “Oxygen and ozone,” “Water vapor: the major greenhouse gas,” “The circulation of earth’s atmosphere and oceans,” and so on.

It is a comprehensive introduction to climate science, and the author grants you permission not to read it all, so try it.

It might be depressing, but that gives you something else to consider. I’m fascinated with a new book titled “The depths: the evolutionary origins of the depression epidemic” by Jonathan Rottenberg.

The subtitle is both accurate and slightly misleading. I think the title of Chapter One might have served better: “Why we need a new approach to depression.” Models that treat depression as a defect are not serving us well.

Astounding numbers of people suffer from depression to some degree. The numbers are growing, and that growth seems not to be a mere function of the availability of pharmaceutical treatments.

The author approaches depression from the view of mood science, in which depression’s defining characteristic is persistent low mood. Of course, it gets more complicated than that, but this is where the evolutionary explanations come in.

We have a mood system. How does it work? What is its purpose? There are adaptive benefits to low mood, and to help explain them, the author uses our mammalian neighbors. I felt great affection for this approach right there. The idea that only humans have emotional responses to the world seems absurd.

But there are emotions as short-lived reactions to experience, and there are moods, which can be remarkably persistent. The adaptive benefits of a low mood might include a kind of stop mechanism, keeping an organism from persisting in a resource-wasting goal.

There are ways in which depressed people function better. There’s not much room to explain here; you’ll have to read the book. But of course there are costs, too, as with any adaptation.

There is no perfect adaptation, and our mechanisms for low mood may well be maladaptive in our modern world. And a mood system that includes shallow depression will likely have the mechanism for deep depression, too.

Humans carry the burden of language into their moods. We can think our way into a low mood; it’s harder to think our way out. Not impossible, since we can bring awareness to our moods, but it’s hard, since moods seem to color our awareness.

Bereavement is a universal factor in producing low mood for most mammals. I was surprised to learn that psychiatry until recently viewed the depression of bereavement as separate from other depressions—as if to say, a low mood after bereavement is normal, but low mood in response to other life losses is not.

There’s plenty to be depressed about. And it might just be the proper response.

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