Sapolsky Breaks Down Depression

Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist, is currently one of the most publicly accessible science writers in the country, perhaps best known for his book on stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In the lecture above, Sapolsky takes a hard look at depression. The topic is a little heavy. I’ll grant that. But, it’s also important. As Sapolsky is quick to point out, depression is pervasive and getting worse. Currently, it’s the 4th greatest cause of disability worldwide, and it will soon become the 2nd. For Sapolsky, depression is deeply biological; it is rooted in biology, just like, say, diabetes. Here, you will see how depression changes the body. When depressed, our brains function differently while sleeping, our stress response goes way up 24/7, our biochemistry levels change, etc. Given the pervasiveness of depression, this video is well worth a watch.

Also don’t miss Sapolsky’s amazing Stanford course, Introduction to Human Biology. It’s equally worth your time. It’s housed in our collection of 750 Free Courses Online.


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  1. Gardner Monk says . . . | December 17, 2009 / 8:24 am

    If the biochem of the body contributes to depression then it can be changed. A boon for the drug companies no?

    Don’t believe it for a minute.

  2. Leisureguy says . . . | December 18, 2009 / 12:39 pm

    It seems strange to hold the position, as Gardner Monk apparently does, that depression cannot have biochemical origins because, if it did, drug companies might be able to treat it. I’m trying to figure out this statement. I guess the idea that any cause drug companies can treat cannot, ipso facto, be the true cause. That position seems quite odd to me.

  3. Gardner Monk says . . . | April 4, 2010 / 9:26 am

    It does seem strange that despite the fact drug companies profess to be able to treat depression they are unable to explain the biological mechanism of their drugs. How do these things actually work? Nobody knows.

    Nothing more than high-priced snake oil in a tablet proving the ability of the mind to fix itself.

    Drug companies have damaged more people suffering from depression than we’ll ever know!

  4. George Klassen says . . . | October 20, 2010 / 3:58 pm

    Mr. Monk should be on anti-depressants becuase he is out of his mind.

  5. uncledude says . . . | April 11, 2011 / 6:09 am

    Bullshit. I bet you’re a Scientologist. Go hug a thetan, and stop trolling.

  6. MsMatch says . . . | April 22, 2011 / 1:39 am

    Did anyone else notice a dog in the front row?

  7. Dr. Herbert West says . . . | April 22, 2011 / 3:32 pm

    Wow this man is brilliant, and I did notice the dog too hah.

  8. Dr. Herbert West says . . . | April 22, 2011 / 3:32 pm

    Wow this man is brilliant, and I did notice the dog too hah.

  9. yb says . . . | May 10, 2011 / 10:05 pm

    @0ae1d9bfc736cdc7242f8d8a2b8375b0:disqus @5ba75c6d4e27011329409970e027f556:disqus @c12f367954dfc9b4340273f9b46d8715:disqus

    I think that while the EFFECTS of depression are clearly caused by biochemical reactions of the brain, the CAUSE, or triggers, more appropriately, is environmental. One, processes in the brain aren’t activated randomly. Two, depression is linked with many sociological trends very separate from biology.

    Is there genetic predisposition? Maybe. Some genes have been identitfied as possible culprits. There is no definitive answer yet as far as I know.

    Could depression be learned in someways? Maybe behavior patterns that lead to depression are learned? Definitely possible, but much harder to prove, and therefore more of a intimidating cause to research.

    Yes, pharmaceutical corporations that tap into the mental health sector and pharmaceutical corporations in general are driven by profit. But, in theory, there is nothing wrong with creating a drug that lessens the debilitating effects of depression, as long as the drug is safe (FAIRLY tested by FDA, not influenced by the Revolving Door), and people aren’t exploited (over prescribing, misleading marketing).

  10. Anonymous says . . . | June 2, 2011 / 2:04 pm

    I wonder if you watched the full video. The lecture clearly discusses the fact that it seems that a genetic predisposition makes it more likely that repeated stressors will act on the various biochemical structures in the brain to eventually tip you over into full-blown depression.

    Sociological factors can most definitely be stressors. But not all people in oppressive situations end up depressed (although some situations are SO oppressive, like concentration camps, it’s probably near 100%). And that’s the factor here – sociological factors would definitely contribute to repeated stress, but what makes an individual more likely to end up in the psychiatric hospital?

  11. Anonymous 2 says . . . | October 31, 2011 / 9:02 am

    you guys should read Blaming The Brain by Elliot Valenstein (professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at University of Michigan). He is not (so far as I know)a sceintologist.

  12. Natalert says . . . | February 2, 2012 / 6:51 pm

    hey uncledude, Scientologists don’t believe in psychology or drug perscriptions for mood disorders.

  13. lizard says . . . | August 22, 2012 / 11:31 pm

    Depression runs in my family, my dad had a major heart attack when I was 7, and I have rhythmic depressive episodes that last longer each time and get worse each time. Zoloft helps tremendously for me, until I stop taking it because I think it makes me fat. I took effexor for a year, and for the first time in my life I experienced extreme suicidal thoughts, lost weight, developed agoraphobia, and also became addicted to klonopin. I think Sapolsky is right on. Screaming biology.

  14. Luca says . . . | December 8, 2012 / 2:54 am

    The delusions of structural engineers are clearly very amusing to this audience. Therapists or chemists, makes no difference. Empathy is in far shorter supply than meds. Folks who do not get it, do not get it. As for a culture which makes the pursuit of happiness a national obsession? We’re watching that empire implode even as this video streams. The problem with the delicate insights of the Professor Sapolskys of this world is that once they become national policies, you end up with state-funded physicians that dispense boxes of 30mg Paxil (Seroxat) or after one-time, 5 minute interviews. Turning to purely mechanistic solutions to address personal tragedies is a shitty way for any society to carry on.

  15. Darrel Berry says . . . | December 8, 2012 / 4:06 am

    Smart guy, excellent message…..ZERO idea about teaching. Standing up in front of a room and talking at high speed is NOT TEACHING! I feel bad for him. He could be imprinting that knowledge on his audience. But you can see it in his face, academic insolence: I am important, I am smart, you will sit and listen. The only saving grace is that someone taped it so that you can go through it and rewind, view it at a reasonable speed that allows you to absorb the information. The live audience could probably tell you NO details about his talk, and the best of them could only generally glaze over the main points. So, if it hadn’t been recorded, he and his audience would have just lost an hour of their lives.

  16. meggus says . . . | December 8, 2012 / 8:19 am

    i had no problem learning and listening to this gentleman. It was interesting to me, so I sat and absorbed as much as possible. Sorry Darryl Berry, you just weren’t interested in it. He does an excellent job, and does NOT speak too fast. i guess it’s you!

  17. Annonymous says . . . | December 11, 2012 / 9:27 pm

    I am not a smart person. I barely graduated high school and had to put off a college career to pay bills instead of build them up. I get what Dr. Sapolsky is saying but I also can tell you what I pull from this is that the biochemistry of the brain is extremely complicated. What I understand is that depression in one individual cannot be diagnosed and treated the exact same way as someone else and have the same results.
    I like to give examples to illustrate my point so here I go.
    Remember when Pixar did shorts before the main feature of their movies? The birds on a telephone wire and the man beating himself in chess? There was one I saw where a UFO was abducting a man from his rural home. Inside the ship there were two extra terrestrial beings clearly displaying the behaviors of someone being tested and the proctor. The individual taking the test was supposed to successfully lift the human out of his bed through the window and into the ship using only the toggle switches in front of him. They were unlabeled and numerous.
    This I feel is an example of what a medical professional has to go through to get the proper result. It doesn’t make sense to me that people would claim that linking depression only to chemical imbalances is the plot of the corrupt pharmaceutical companies. It also doesn’t make sense to me that people would try to only pin it to genetics or sociology.
    Its not so simple. Depression is dynamic. It is different and changes to suit itself. Although science can be used to determine a physical way to treat depression I personally believe, and I am not trying to make you believe it yourself, that trying to have one answer that fixes all problems is impossible.
    I DO suffer from depression. Not like the first two example but like the third. It goes up and down and at times I can behave “normally” but I can personally attest to the fact that it has ruined my life.

  18. carla foley says . . . | December 14, 2012 / 9:24 am

    I DO

  19. carla foley says . . . | December 14, 2012 / 9:41 am

    I too suffer from depression and after watching this video twice I do not hate myself as much for the torture and the pain I have brought to my friends and family. I also feel less guilty about not having the courage to take my own life. I have owned two very successful restaurants and traveled the world while serving in the U. S. Dept of State. I could not have done this without my support system. I do not believe that severe depression is curable but with the correct medication, a good support system and a good doctor it can be controlled or at least made manageable. I consider myself cursed yet blessed. I would not care how much pharmaceuticals companies made if the could create a medication that would make severe depression livable. All of you cynics should create your own space where you can talk to each other. I wake up almost every day blaming myself for being such a jerk and for the first time I heard someone make some sense of why I am how I am.

  20. are you depressed quiz says . . . | January 6, 2013 / 11:53 am

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everybody else encountering problems with your blog.
    It appears as if some of the written text in your posts are running off the screen.
    Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is
    happening to them too? This might be a issue with my internet browser because I’ve had this happen before. Cheers

  21. G says . . . | August 9, 2013 / 4:40 am
  22. Jonathan says . . . | November 17, 2013 / 2:13 pm

    I was riveted throughout.

  23. Babz G-Sievers says . . . | November 18, 2013 / 5:17 am

    incredible………….. information and its so important … biology is the premeditator of all.

  24. Natalie Bustillos says . . . | November 23, 2013 / 11:27 am

    BIBLE WISDOM HEALS, AND IS THE ANSWER TO DEPRESSION

  25. David Gersten says . . . | January 1, 2014 / 5:18 pm

    As a physician practicing integrative psychiatry and nutritional medicine, I’m used to high levels of complexity. I liked his style of lecturing, and found it humbling. Not as in, “He understands every piece of the puzzle,” but that he hss a lot of pieces. I did watch the entire lecture and will probably watch it again, just to help fill in more pieces about how I understand depression. He did talk about drugs a lot without talking about the nutrients, the amino acids that are the precursors to every neurotransmitter except for acetylcholine. He is a smart cookie who is attempting to bridge those who look at depression entirely as biological and those who look at the psychospiritual components.

  26. jerry haddock says . . . | January 12, 2014 / 8:11 pm

    Sorry Natalie, my opinion is that religion is an opiate. Just another addiction and a big distraction from what is really required for wellness. You defend it like a marijuana smoker defends his weed. The idea of God palliates pain, but comes at the cost of true insight and therefore true healing. The answer to depression is the science of depression and recovery. Bible wisdom makes us all sinners, not a good thing for people who already hate themselves. Just my opinion, as your final pronouncement is just your opinion.

  27. Donal says . . . | May 16, 2014 / 6:53 pm

    If only I’d read your comment sooner Natalie Bustillos, I could have saved myself 52 minutes. Gardner Monk smells like a conspiracy theorists to me! I am not an expert in sociology, biology or psychology but I don’t think anybody with a clear perspective would claim that depression is simply a state of mind rather but a actual physical state of being. Sapolsky makes some great points.

  28. Richard says . . . | July 29, 2014 / 1:30 pm

    In stark contrast to this lecture, in the documentary “Human Nature talk” with Robert Sapolsky, Robert focuses more on the environmental: “One of the most crazy making yet widespread and potentially dangerous notions is ‘oh, that behavior is genetic.’ What does that mean? It means all sorts of subtle stuff. For most people out there, what it winds up meaning is a deterministic view of life, one rooted in biology and genetics–genes equal things that cannot be changed. Genes equal things that are inevitable and that you might as well not waste resources trying to fix. Might as well not put societal energies into trying to improve, because it’s inevitable, it’s unchangeable. And that is sheer nonsense.”

  29. lionswimmer says . . . | August 12, 2014 / 10:36 am

    Beautifully stated, Luca. Thank you.

  30. lionswimmer says . . . | August 12, 2014 / 11:07 am

    Hi Anon, I like your Pixar analogy.nSincere empathy to you in your suffering. I know of the debilitating effects of this dynamic, multi-variant condition that is labeled depression. I agree that a global answer for all depression is erroneous. I also think depression is not its own, monolithic entity, but rather, a symptom of many variables. And that, as Dr. Sapolsky pointed out, it starts with stress (or trauma) and that the body chemistry gets habituated after a number of major stresses. I posit that the bodymind can be re-trained to “undo” this habituation; that the variables comprising depression can be worked with and “managed.” Epigenetics is showing that environmental stimulus (anything the organism introduces to itself) can affect the on-off switches that govern how a gene expresses. Thus, we can work with ourselves (and others) to regulate our expression in contributing to the creation of what we call “reality.” The bodymind feedback loop is an amazing system. The toggle switches you mention above, come to mind.nCheck out the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza, Bruce Lipton (epigenetics) and also, Brian Swimme (cosmologist), about the organism’s ability to train the bodymind and the conscious, emergent Universe, respectively.

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