Does a thing called “depression” cause the various symptoms of change in sleep, fatigue, guilt, diminished concentration, irritability and or sadness? In one school of psychiatry, the answer is “Yes”. “Depression” is called the “latent variable” — the cause behind all the symptoms. In a different view in Psychiatry, one getting more press, the answer is “No, depression is a network illusion.” In that view, it is the complex interaction of concrete problems themselves, such a lack of sleep or poor self-view (from loss of job, loss of partner etc) feed on each other to make a presentation we label as “depression”.
This second view has been with us for a while, but with the application of the branch of mathematics called network analysis to psychological data, the latter view seems to be showing itself to be true. Network analysis has also allowed us improved understanding of various fields including internet vulnerabilities, defense issues and now biological issues.
These two fine articles are what inspired today’s post:
- Slate Star Codex: Mental Disorders as Networks
- Mental Disorders as Complex Networks (2016) Clinical Neuropsychiatry.
Those articles have great diagrams to help illustrate how network analysis works.
But how will the network analysis perspective change our approach to depression? Well, the old view is that a condition called “depression” (a word we created) causes all its symptoms and further, they think “depression” is simply due to a decrease in certain neurotransmitters. So by this view, all we need to do is give an antidepressant or anti-anxiety pill (or both) to supplement the patients neurotransmitter deficiency and bang!, their depression is cured. But data to support this approach is very poorly. Why? Because there is no such thing as “depression” as a cause. Depression is a network illusion.
I have long been sympathetic to the network view, valuing the therapist that address the causes: poor social connections, exercise, sleep hygiene, cognitive habits etc, rather the psychiatrist view of giving a pill to fix the problem (though at times helpful). But even understanding the cause does not make the cure any more easier. The problem is, the real cure is very difficult — changing ourselves, yet alone others, is not easy. Changing our social habits, our movement habits, our thinking habits and such is tough. So a pill seems to offer much greater hope.
“God” offers us great hope too. Even though “God” is a network illusion, the view of a single causative agent is often much easier view than the complex network view. In this post I discuss “God” as a modular network phenomena and an abstraction as result of packaging complex interactions. It shows “God” as a network illusion and not an actual “latent variable“. Above I illustrate two different gods. Imagine the two Protestants, both talking to each other about “God”, but looking behind the word reveals two very different gods with two different functions
When speaking to people about their “God” or their “Patriotism” or their “Depression”, we can reach a much deeper understand of that person by looking for the deep networks of complex concrete connections that generate their abstractions, rather than falling for their network illusion. Does “God” as a thing exist, certainly not, but it is the word people use to describe the complex network of real important things in their lives.