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 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

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Comments (26)
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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.….like 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:

    I would like to be able to receive your posts. What doni need to do

  • Tyler says:

    I think many peo­ple here are miss­ing a key dis­tinc­tion between being sad or depressed, and suf­fer­ing from clin­i­cal major depres­sive dis­or­der. Some­one not­ed this above, but the very def­i­n­i­tion of MDD is that it is unremit­ting and large­ly inde­pen­dent of envi­ron­men­tal cir­cum­stance. Many peo­ple suf­fer from the much more eas­i­ly treat­ed depres­sion that can occur as a result of citcum­stance, while oth­ers live in con­stant tur­moil despite con­ven­tion­al indi­ca­tors of soci­etal­ly accept­ed success/happiness.

    Obvi­ous­ly near­ly all cas­es are in a bal­ance of both cob­tribut­ing fac­tors, but bio­chem­i­cal sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty is the main dri­ver of suc­cess­ful cop­ing and recov­ery. Biol­o­gy is the always much more com­plex than it appears at the sur­face and is char­ac­ter­ized by the changes from equi­lib­ri­um states I’m both envi­ron­ment and bio­chem­i­cal process­es.

  • AJ says:

    you are com­plete­ly off. that is not depres­sion. stress isn’t the main cause for depres­sion. you don’t under­stand depres­sion or know much about it if you are mak­ing that claim.

    i *assume* you haven’t expe­ri­enced the hells of depres­sion — it ain’t from stress, my friend. you can have the world and still be tak­en by the black.

  • Simeon says:

    The issue here though is when the 1 in 4 peo­ple suf­fer from depres­sion at some point in their life sta­tis­tic is tout­ed, are we then sug­gest­ing that 1 in 4 peo­ple suf­fer from Major depres­sion? If not, then, we are talk­ing about sim­ply depres­sion.

    The prob­lem with talk­ing about Major depres­sion is, once peo­ple use that term, every­one kind of shuts up, as it is assumed that Major depres­sion is an actu­al, phys­i­cal dis­ease. It is not. The sug­ges­tion that some­one suf­fers from Major depres­sion because there is no obvi­ous envi­ron­men­tal cause, ignores the fact that the cause may be root­ed in some­ones past, and not be obvi­ous to any observ­er in the present.

    As of now, there is still no med­ical test of human biol­o­gy that can deter­mine whether some­one is depressed. The diag­no­sis for major depres­sion is still giv­en only by observ­ing the behav­iour of a per­son.

    The insis­tence that there is such a thing as clin­i­cal depres­sion comes from the med­ical world, where all things are reduced to their small­est bio­log­i­cal com­po­nents. In the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal world, it is under­stood that men­tal ill­ness is root­ed in our rela­tion­ship with our envi­ron­ment and the peo­ple we inter­act with. Hav­ing suf­fered men­tal dis­tress for many years, which was large­ly alle­vi­at­ed through psy­cho­analy­sis, I tend to side with the lat­ter view.

    To put it in more sim­ple terms, when we are hun­gry, are we suf­fer­ing from unbal­anced chem­i­cals in our body like insulin, or are we, in fact, suf­fer­ing from a lack of food?

  • Ceyda says:

    Depres­sion def­i­nite­ly leads to bio­log­i­cal changes, but when it comes to the rea­sons i think it is both nature and nur­ture / ways of think­ing and liv­ing. Oth­er­wise its per­cent­age in pop­u­la­tion would not be ris­ing.

  • Jacqui says:

    Ha, bril­liant idea!

  • Jacqui says:

    Oh, I was refer­ring to the sug­gest­ed baboon study. Guess there’s no delet­ing here.

  • Alegria says:

    Hi Camelia, thanks for your post. I was think­ing the same as cog­ni­tive ther­a­py is so suc­cess­ful because often depres­sion is caused by a com­bi­na­tion of upbring­ing (learned thought pat­terns) and life cir­cum­stances. Yes genet­ics can pre­dis­pose, but just because your brain changes as a result of your think­ing, does not prove that the brain itself CAUSES that way of think­ing in the first place! Thanks again for the counter argu­ment.

  • Peter Parsons says:

    True, that. So facile and “easy” to reduce our issues to “chemistry”/ Neu­rol­o­gy, etc. Esp. since Don­nie “Darko” Demen­to’s been in office. MEDICARE FOR ALL!! Thank you. Peter Par­sons, LICSW

  • Noel says:

    No , there is a retard­ed ghost in your brain

  • Noel says:

    That has noth­ing to do with depres­sion

  • Richard Cassidy says:

    Excel­lent com­ment

  • Sue says:

    Well said, Eve­lyn. Biol­o­gy is unde­ni­able but we are the prod­uct of both biol­o­gy and envi­ron­ment.

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