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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Comments (33)
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  • Gardner Monk says:

    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.

  • Leisureguy says:

    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.

  • Gardner Monk says:

    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!

  • George Klassen says:

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

  • MsMatch says:

    Did any­one else notice a dog in the front row?

  • Dr. Herbert West says:

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

  • Dr. Herbert West says:

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

  • yb says:

    @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).

    • Anonymous says:

      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?

  • Anonymous 2 says:

    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.

  • Natalert says:

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

  • lizard says:

    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.

  • Luca says:

    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.

  • Darrel Berry says:

    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.

  • meggus says:

    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!

  • Annonymous says:

    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.

    • lionswimmer says:

      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.

  • carla foley says:

    I DO

  • carla foley says:

    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.

  • 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

  • Babz G-Sievers says:

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

  • Natalie Bustillos says:


  • David Gersten says:

    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.

  • jerry haddock says:

    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.

  • Donal says:

    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.

  • Richard says:

    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.”

  • A says:

    I total­ly dis­agree with you. Eng­lish is not my native lan­guage but i have no prob­lem of under­stand­ing Sapol­sky’s lec­tures. He’s a bril­liant teacher. I’ve been study­ing these fields for years and i’ve nev­er agreed with any­body’s opin­ion 100% until i came upon Sapol­sky’s lec­tures. I felt like i met my twin in the way of think­ing. Recomend him to every­body, but with at least a lit­tle bit of knowl­edge on biol­o­gy and it’s fields. I for e.g would­n’t go to a lec­ture about mak­ing mod­el planes, because i have 0 knowl­edge of it..

  • A says:

    Oh, it was my answer to Dar­rel Berry ;)

  • Lb says:

    I thought his style was engag­ing and for me it did what I a sure it’s intend­ed to — get the stu­dents to do fur­ther study. Lec­tures atre kick off pints and help to gain an over­all grasp before div­ing deep­er.

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