Mental Illness: An Evolutionary Advantage

‘Abnormal’ conditions and normal behaviours belong on a continuum; every trait has its own function, utilization and the effectiveness of each depends on the context/situation. In some cases, these traits are advantageous as shaped due to the conditioning of evolution. However, in many others, these traits are not as beneficial. Owing to the exercise, people tend to react in a particular way even when it is unnecessary. Some emotions make one feel bad but are helpful for the gene pool of humans, such as in cases of adulterous affairs where indulgence may have negative emotional and interpersonal consequence. However, beneficial biological ones involve their contribution to more kinship (Smith, 2019).


In today’s world, people are quick to label someone as ‘abnormal’ or diagnose them with a baseless disorder for the sake of their convenience. It is, however, increasingly important to see how and why these ‘disorders’ emerged. Not only do these conditions indicate towards advantageous adaptation but also how gradually they equipped individuals with a vivid imagination, creativity, sense of humour and a different perspective on things. A plethora of individuals who have such conditions has shown to the world ways in which it can aid ingenuity.


How wonderful would it be if these conditions are viewed as a combination of ‘mental illness’ as well as special abilities? Let’s look at how some of these could have been beneficial from an evolutionary perspective:


  • Bipolar Disorder: According to anthropologists, the majority of men and women had bipolar disorder in earlier days because most of their lives were governed by the movements of the sun and changing of seasons. During spring and rise of summer, these cave people came out of to hunt and gather, which led to a collection of supplies needed for the next seven or eight months of the cold season. This would turn into their hypomanic state where they would hunt, gather and remain sexually active. As members had to grow their tribe, women in their reproductive sexual years became more prone to bipolar disorder. Recent studies also show that female hormones and reproductive factors influence the condition of bipolar disorder through onset and relapse (Kvarnstrom, 2018). Soon winter would arrive and days would grow shorter and nights longer with which people slipped into the depressive state. They would rest and hibernate while bearing and keeping children alive for summertime (especially women).

There are several celebrities with Bipolar Personality Disorder. Some of them include Demi Lovato, the singer; Kurt Cobain, the singer; Amy Winehouse, the singer; and even Russell Brand, the comedian


  • Depression: Some recent research indicates that inflammation may cause depression in many cases. It was also found that such moody states can be induced by proinflammatory injections. This inflammatory stimulus can serve an adaptive purpose. When any hunter-gatherer comes in contact with such stimuli involving their immune system flaring up, it is beneficial to isolate themselves and take rest. This is promoted through moody feelings. This helps not only to keep away from more inflammatory stimuli but also to give some time to the immune system to recover/repair. Isolation, as seen in depression, is another way for an individual in a tribe to stay away from others in cases of inflammation to reduce infecting others (Garnas, 2019). There are several celebrities with depression. Some of them include Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the actor; Lady Gaga, the singer; Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer.

  • Dyslexia: People with dyslexia have a better peripheral vision than most neurotypical people. Hence when people typically look ahead, they focus only the sight straight in front of them blurring out the sides. However, people with dyslexia focus on the whole picture as a panoramic. These individuals can also spot an anomaly in the vision. Therefore, a person with dyslexia is more likely to even spot a person camouflaged in a forest or field of grass than an average person (King, 2019). There are several celebrities with dyslexia. Some of them include Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA; Jennifer Aniston, the actress; Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion.

  • Addiction: Research shows that humans “have evolved to exploit neurotoxic properties of some plant secondary compounds (e.g., nicotine) to fight parasites such as helminthic worms.” This suggests that humans began consuming some plant-based drugs to aid their survival. It helps one to understand why humans start using any type of drug, also, perceiving it from a lens of adaption which does not negate the fact that humans tend to abuse any substance more and more, as it may pose to be extremely detrimental for them. In present times, some individuals show how this abuse can lead to irrevocable damage to life while others show how this point of damage can be used as an opportunity for growth. There are several celebrities with addiction. Some of them include Robert Downy Jr., actor; Whitney Houston, the singer and the infamous star Lindsay Lohan.

  • Attention Deficit Disorder: A child with such an ability (or disability) is unable to sit in a classroom for 20 minutes because they are wired for activities which require a shorter attention span. Although these individuals focus on a task for a shorter duration, their outcome may be equally good. In the earlier days, a child with ADD was highly sensitive to different stimuli in the environment that broadly aligned to survival as they identified an animal (maybe even a velociraptor) or unexpected movement faster than the rest of their peers. This would avert possible dangers (King, 2019). If these individuals had much less appetite or sleep needs than the rest of their peers and were highly attentive, distractible yet focused, they could easily take up the job of maintaining security which is still essential for the protection of the tribe. There are several celebrities with Attention Deficit Disorder. Some of them include Simone Biles a famous gymnast; Ryan Gosling, the actor; Solange Knowles, the singer.

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): As winters set in, early humans needed to hunt for supplies collected over summer/spring and store it in such a way that they would sustain for the next eight months. A person who is obsessed with the organization will be able to do the job more efficiently than most others. Cleaning rituals would also ensure that there are no bugs or parasites since they didn’t have the gift of sanitizers or even soaps primitively. A person with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder would be a great instructor of what to eat and what not to eat considering they would pay much more details to what would be less harmful to their peers (King, 2019). Although OCD is not all about organization and cleaning rituals, the explanation presented above can help one to understand how such symptoms can be beneficial. There are several celebrities with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Some of them include Justin Timberlake, the singer; John Green, the writer; Megan Fox, the actress.

  • Anxiety: The fight or flight response which may sometimes even raise false alarms has a better evolutionary advantage than an underactive system that does not do the job it is designed for, which can result in grave consequences in situations with the actual threat. Hence, anxiety in many situations aids survival which is primal need of all humans. Looking at some artists in recent times, where the occurrence of anxiety has paved a path for creativity by drawing on from these experiences.

  • There are several celebrities with anxiety. Some of them include Emma Stone, the actress; Whoopi Goldberg, the actress and comedienne; Mardy Fish, the tennis player. Schizophrenia: A few genetic studies show that for some polygenic psychological traits, a certain number of risk alleles may contribute towards fitness. At the same time, too many may cause a disorder. Thus, the risk alleles which carry a predisposition for schizophrenia may also provide the individual with a higher IQ, enhanced creativity and better mathematical reasoning. This, in a simplified term, means some genes which promote enhanced performance may also carry some risks for disorders (Durisko et al., 2016).

Psychosis (including hallucinations and delusions) is seen as an essential symptom of schizophrenia. It has also been viewed as an adaptive function in some instances. Since birth, children develop their biography through early experiences and most, seem to grow in an environment which is conducive for them. However, when these children grow up, they enter the world where they must decide for themselves which person is safe for them. They will not be disruptive to their life or potentially even hostile. These can lead to one being hypersensitive, paranoid, hyper-alert and make one feel different than the rest. Through this lens, psychosis may be a natural defence mechanism (Scheepers et al., 2018).


There are several celebrities with depression. Some of them include John Nash Jr. was a famous mathematician whose life journey is shown in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”; James Gordon, the drummer; Louis Wain, the illustrator


Why is there a willingness to label and stigmatize?


Humans have several adaptations where the normal functioning of these systems may be unpleasant for the individual, for example, ingesting rotten food and experiencing issues with indigestion or vomiting. In many such cases, disruption of these adaptations may have negative consequences. Conversely, the lack of presence of distress may indicate a ‘disorder’. Thus a congenital incapacity to feel distressed and pain may lead to early death or injury. Identification and classification of diseases may hence look at distress as a faulty criterion for distinguishing a disorder as it may turn out to be a ‘normal’ state of functioning. For example, transgender people have continually been diagnosed with a condition as an explanation for their unique identity. However, the anxiety experienced by these individuals is ‘dysphoria’ which is a normal response to the dissatisfaction felt by them due to wrongful gender assignment at birth.


Viewing ‘distress’ without the context of the individual or comparing the function of a trait to a standard of ‘normal functioning’ can be faulty unless a historical inference provides information on the pressures that lead to a specific characteristic. Natural selection is a well-known mechanism which can provide answers for various behavioural syndromes as a natural adaption for a particular function. However, it order to gain real insight about this one will have to understand each syndrome or ‘disorder’ in great detail. When research focuses more on distinctions between biological malfunction and conditions caused by harmful, undesirable or forced unruly adaptations, it will lead to different approaches to treatment, models of mental illness or directions of research.


Take, for example, an individual who shows some aggressive tendencies and can easily be diagnosed with a personality disorder or psychosis. However, the history of the person may indicate living in a household with abusive people and being surrounded by a threat to their well-being. In such a context, this ‘disorder’ will look like a normal response to a distressing situation where the individual learnt to model aggressive behaviours as well as grow with a sensitive and hyper-vigilant threat system. Traits like aggressiveness are also culturally frowned upon, which makes it easier to be distinguished as a disorder. This non-acceptance and willingness to diagnose people can extend to traits like sexual deviance, non-productivity and even lack of adherence to societal norms.


This does not suggest that these conditions or states of ‘dis’-eases should be ignored but rather to view them differently concerning distress and impairment. When situations such as mentioned before and many others become disruptive and disturbing to the individual, it’s advised to be attended. All distressing conditions should be provided with some help to alleviate them but providing treatments that support the adaptive function rather than abolish them may be a way forward. For instance, a child with ADHD is expected to have a shorter span of attention, let’s say of 10 minutes. Now instead of forcing the child to sit for 40 minutes, if they are motivated to focus on a task for 10 minutes, they can produce an equally commendable outcome in that short span. For the next 10 minutes, they can be asked to focus on some other task and for the 10 minutes after that on another mission and so forth. One can see here how viewing this as an adaptive function can lead to a desirable consequence.


References


Durisko, Z., Mulsant, B. H., McKenzie, K., & Andrews, P. W. (2016). Using evolutionary theory to guide mental health research. In Canadian Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 61, Issue 3, pp. 159–165). SAGE Publications Inc. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743716632517


Garnas, E. (2019, March 22). The Darwinian Causes of Mental Illness – The Evolution Institute. https://evolution-institute.org/the-darwinian-causes-of-mental-illness/#comments


King, F. (2019). The Evolutionary Advantages of Mental Illness. https://www.differentbrains.org/the-evolutionary-advantages-of-mental-illness/


Kvarnstrom, E. (2018). Is Bipolar Disorder in Women Different Than in Men? – Bridges to Recovery. https://www.bridgestorecovery.com/blog/is-bipolar-disorder-in-women-different-than-in-men/


Scheepers, F. E., de Mul, J., Boer, F., & Hoogendijk, W. J. (2018). Psychosis as an Evolutionary Adaptive Mechanism to Changing Environments. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9(JUN), 237. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00237


Smith, D. (2019, March 1). Susceptibility to Mental Illness May Has Helped Humans Adapt over the Millennia - Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/susceptibility-to-mental-illness-may-have-helped-humans-adapt-over-the-millennia/

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