Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky Demystifies Depression, Which, Like Diabetes, Is Rooted in Biology

We know that depression affects people from all walks of life. Rich. Poor. Celebs. Ordinary Joes. Young. Old. But, somehow after the death of Robin Williams, there’s a renewed focus on depression, and my mind turned immediately to a lecture we featured on the site way back in 2009. The lecture is by Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist, who has a talent for making scientific subjects publicly accessible. A recipient of the MacArthur genius grant, Sapolsky notes that depression — currently the 4th greatest cause of disability worldwide, and soon the 2nd — is deeply biological. Depression is rooted in biology, much as is, say, diabetes. As the lecture unfolds, 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. You will see that biology is at work.

Sapolsky is one compelling teacher. So you might not want to miss his Stanford course, Introduction to Human Biology. It’s equally worth your time. You can always find it housed in our collection 1200 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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  • Michelle says:

    excellent – thank you for posting

  • James Bruce says:

    Some of the most gifted people in the world struggled with depression. We know of Robin Williams, but one of the most treasured impressionists in the world did when they had no medication of any sort. His name was Vincent Van Gogh!

  • Micky DuPree says:

    Obviously there’s a genetic predisposition to depression and bipolar disorder, but there’s an environmental dimension too. The modern world and its media have medicalized and personalized sociopolitical problems so as to relieve the powerful of responsibility for the effects of their decisions on others. Therefore you’re not depressed because your job was outsourced. You’re depressed because your biology is faulty.

  • Will says:

    A tremendously comprehensive over-view of the psycho-biology of Major Depression.

    I’m somewhat mystified however on one point; are you saying that only loss-of-weight and avoiding adequate nourishment is the key criteria for Major Depression? Or can overeating and obesity be criteria as well. I am a clinician and have see both considerable loss of weight AND considerable gain of weight presenting in sessions with my patients who suffer from MDD. Did I misunderstand or can you clarify this point.

    Thank you for your extraordinarily-honed lecture, Professor Sapolsky.


  • zapp says:

    what this article forgets to mention is that main cause for the biological effect of depression is non-biological, it’s social. Stress.

    Dr. Robert Sapolsky does however claim this, but this article doesn’t.

    Check out “Why Zebras Don’t Have Ulcers” by Sapolsky.
    Also “Stress – The Portrait of the killer”.

    Apart from individual and esoteric causes of stress (like artist worrying that his/her art is not “real enough” or alike), main cause of stress in majority of population is the unnatural life style we live today, fueled by consumerism and economical slavery.

  • steeleweed says:

    One might also remark that many people live in depressing circumstances. Chronic pain that can not be eliminated, poverty – both stressful and depressing.

  • sglover says:

    One might also remark that many people live in depressing circumstances. Chronic pain that can not be eliminated, poverty – both stressful and depressing.

    Yes, but I think Sapolsky touches on that when he discusses how unpredictability and loss of control are central features of stress. Surely one of the worst aspects of poverty — as bad as want itself? — is the vulnerability that comes with it.

    Anyway, this was really an excellent lecture. I’ve been very sceptical of the pill-centric approach that seems to define modern mental health treatment, but Dr. Sapolsky’s given me a more nuanced view.

  • Evelyn Roebuck says:

    I totally agree with you that the life style we live today is not natural for the human animal. I think this is due to overpopulation, and the specialization required of us to survive. An interesting study would be to overpopulate a colony of baboons and have them work for their food (by doing non food things… stacking blocks to get food) and see what happens.

  • Stuart says:

    We’re talking about Clinical Depression, not episodic. This is not caused by external events, but can be worsened.

  • Carlos A. Zuluaga says:


  • Bruce says:

    Interesting lecture by Mr. Sapolsky, but I don’t think bio-chemical reductionism nails it. If it’s helpful in procuring better funding commensurate with traditional physical disease, all well and good – but there are definite environmental factors at work also (as well as even more subtle influences that allude to the mind/brain problem). It’s been shown that meditation processes for anxiety/depression can modify brain chemistry/electrical activity, but nobody would suggest that this chemistry is the source of the meditative state. The instigator is the will of the individual, which is a symptom of consciousness. This irreducible principle of consciousness isn’t captured by the scientific biochemical method, which – although sincere in its efforts – continues to look for the music by progressive dismantling of the radio. There is a ‘ghost’ in the machine that can only be discovered by alternate methods of inquiry.

  • Laurel Rain says:

    As a survivor of long term abuse I would have to agree with your response about depression. While true that there may be biological markers or tendencies, the fact remains that many people have lived with or through atrocities that depress the spirit, which in opinion has nothing to do with biology.

  • Dominique says:

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