From a radical new understanding of depression, a neuroscientist explains how to make our lives happier and holier.
To borrow a phrase from Oprah Winfrey, this is what I know for sure: Despite our differences, we are all the handiwork of the energetic universe, and each of us—and everything in the world around us—manifests its laws. At moments of self-realization, regardless of the path we took to get there, we see that everything is—and always has been—“at one with the universe,” aligned with the exquisitely principled beauty of the whole.
My awakening to this truth came like a bolt of lightning on a gray winter’s day in Southern California. It was January 9, 1996, and I was pacing the floor of my tiny apartment, adjacent to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had been working on the same research problem for months, trying to understand the complex group of phenomena we call “depression” within the existing framework of evolutionary psychology. This school of thought held that the mind is a collection of separate problem-solving instincts, each one arising from a separate brain circuit that had solved a specific survival or reproductive problem for our ancestors. I had spent years of graduate and postdoctoral study doing research guided by this model, but I now felt deeply troubled by it. I just couldn’t fathom how a bunch of separate instinctual circuits could possibly produce the seemingly orchestrated series of physical, psychological, and behavioral changes that make up a clinical depression.
Depression was a problem I knew something about. As a graduate student in neuroscience, I had spent years studying the characteristics of the dopamine system, one of the major neurotransmitter systems implicated in this condition. And long before that, I had a deluxe crash course—a severe episode of depression that had, over a frighteningly short period of time, systematically siphoned off my will to live.
Sliding into Depression
I wasn’t sure of much of anything as my twenty-first birthday approached, but I knew that if I were going to make it to middle age unscathed, I’d better clean up my act. I was working extremely long hours in an attempt to suppress the pain of too much loss in too little time. My mother, my aunt, my favorite cousin, and my first boyfriend had all died, one right after the other. Before I could begin to make sense of the first loss, there was another . . . and then another, and another. My world began to fall apart, and I was drinking massive amounts of coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes, just pretending to hold it together. So as I approached legal adulthood, I vowed that I would quit these damaging habits. And quit them I did. Cold turkey.
At first I simply felt odd—a little sad and unable to think clearly. But then everything spiraled downward. I was constantly tired but couldn’t sleep. I tried to eat, but my favorite foods tasted like cardboard. Nothing felt pleasurable and, perhaps more disturbing, nothing felt painful. It was like being slowly embalmed. The sensory world faded, and nothing interested me. I stopped socializing and eventually lost the motivation to get out of bed.
Finally, my periods stopped, and I was in a kind of holding pattern—not quite dead but not really alive. It was a profound experience—nothing like a set of instincts gone awry. It was more like a plug had been pulled, and the vital force within me was draining out.
Discovering Why We Slide Down
On that gray winter’s day of my awakening many years later, I felt that plug pull out and that drain open again. I had stopped pacing and thinking about evolutionary psychology for the moment and had begun to write a letter to someone dear to me. He had asked me to move up to the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and marry him. We would live in his beautiful lakeside cabin, surrounded by hundreds of acres of forested wilderness. That had been the plan. But I had just returned from a two-week test run of this isolated life, and I knew I couldn’t do it. What remained was the sad task of saying goodbye.
As I stared out the window, trying to find the right words and feeling the downward pull of my heart, my mind flickered back to my research problem about depression. Suddenly, something snapped into place. The depression I was beginning to experience wasn’t the result of ancient problem-solving instincts gone awry, as the evolutionary psychologists had claimed. Nor was it an illness or a chemical imbalance, as the psychiatric community claimed.
What was becoming clear in that moment was that depression is a potentially lifesaving adaptive response: When our intelligence system perceives that there is not much to gain by carrying on with the tasks of life—when we are overcome by too much loss or are facing a period of too little gain—we shift into a state of dormancy we call “depression.”
By the same token, the cold-season shutdown that psychiatrists call seasonal affective disorder is actually a normal, if uncomfortable, recalibration for the energetically barren winter months that our species confronted during our ancestral past. This kind of motivational downshifting forces us to radically reconfigure our lives and ourselves to conserve energy. My brain was shutting down my motivational system to keep me from wasting any more behavioral energy on a dead-end path. Feeling unable to get out of bed is a defense mechanism to keep people alive.
In that moment, I understood the nature of depression—and with that, I understood the nature of the mind. The mind is a completely integrated system, exquisitely responsive to real-world problems in real time, updating itself with every experience. And what it excels at is acquiring, managing, and directing energy—not just in the form of food and shelter but also in the form of social support and recognition and love.
Like a person lost in the desert who finds an oasis, I went from sliding into a depression to being launched into a state of elation. I had 20 years of accumulated experimental knowledge about the mind and brain and almost 40 years of life experience to be resolved through the lens of this energetic model, and with this huge energetic boost, my own mind wasted no time. For the next weeks and months, I hardly slept as I was bombarded with hundreds of insights into how our intelligence system is designed to solve our behavioral challenges. A new paradigm of the human mind began to emerge.
The Simple Truth of the Mind
Somewhere in the midst of this “enlightenment period,” I realized one simple truth: all life intelligence systems evolved in a world where the number one threat was—and is—entropy: the tendency toward randomness in a system. It takes a lot of energy to counter entropy, so all forms of plant and animal life have intelligence systems that have been honed by evolution to acquire, manage, and direct energetic resources. Everything else is secondary to meeting this energetic bottom line.
Plants manage their energetic needs with an integrated hormonal system that allows them to do such things as turns their leaves to track the sun. Animals have a more complex “centralized” neurohormonal system, and the reason for this is that animals have the capacity to behave. The energetic benefits of behavior are enormous—sources of energy can be caught or cultivated; energy can be conserved in a cave or a condominium; and predators and rockslides can be evaded. But there’s a catch: Behavior itself is energetically expensive—we must use energy in order to even attempt to get more. If our behavior doesn’t get us “the goods,” we run out of energy and die.
Nature’s solution to this economic conundrum is a behavioral intelligence system that acts as an energetic cost–benefit analysis and prediction system. It creates a neural record of our experiences, a “representation” with all the details of each relevant moment, especially the attendant energetic costs and benefits. When we find ourselves in a situation similar to one we’ve encountered before, the system uses this stored information to “model” various behavioral options, estimate their likely costs and benefits, modify the one that most closely approximates our current circumstances, and chart an energetically sound behavioral course into the future. What Buddhists call our “monkey mind” is the constant weighing of pros and cons in our decision-making processes.
If we tune into these thoughts, it becomes evident that our behavioral intelligence system doesn’t simply influence our psychological state; it creates it in real time. Ultimately, even our sense of “self ” is created by the neural record of our energy choices. How? Neural networks exhibit something called “hierarchical processing”: Any information that is common across a series of network representations gets recorded in a new network representation at a higher level of our intelligence system. This hierarchical processing enables us to do many things—to form categories and concepts, identify people and objects, recognize patterns, and more. And because this process is constantly occurring as we engage in each of the various roles in our life, some very special higher-order representations are being created that oversee the different sectors of our life. They are our selves—repositories of instantly available essential information about the physical and social energetic environment that we navigate from day to day.
I first wrote about this new model of the mind in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (September 15, 1998) and later in my book The Origin of Minds. What I didn’t write about was the spiritual awakening I had in the course of the discovery period—my awareness of the exquisite integrity of the energetic universe. In this amazing period of discovery, it became crystal clear to me that the same laws that continually lead to the changes in the seasons and that shape and reshape the contours of the land and the seas are continually shaping and reshaping our thoughts and behaviors and are creating our reality and our sense of self. I knew that I was experiencing the Tao—the energetic flow of the universe. One night, while I was standing under the stars on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, “I” simply disappeared into it—anatta, “no self.”
Buddhism, Neuroscience, and the Illusion of Self
Sometime after this extraordinary experience—of iterative scientific induction, or protracted spiritual awakening, or mania, depending on your perspective—I reflected on the Pali scriptures, the earliest record of Buddhist thought. In Buddhist philosophy, self is considered to be illusory—nothing more than an experience arising from a collection of skandhas, bundles of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. I was stunned by the similarities between the Buddha’s 2,500-year-old view of the mental components that make up our experience of self and the neural components of a self-representation. But, with respect to the Buddha, in the light of this scientifically supported model of the mind, the self is no more illusory than anything else we experience; in fact, it is, like everything else we experience, transitory—a temporary manifestation of matter, orchestrated by the laws of energy.
The neural basis of our reality and our self is a layered neural phenomenon inside the part of the brain called the neocortex. Let me explain: at the most basic level, a neural representation is a network of neurons that, when activated, gives rise to a specific psychological experience—like the feeling of elation, or the perception of green, or the concept of eternity. Neural representations of our sensations, perceptions, motivations, thoughts, behaviors, and the felt outcomes of behavior are constantly being created and then “knitted together” into complex representations of momentary experiences that we call memories. Stop for a moment to recall a poignant memory of your life and then describe it. Chances are that your description will include where you were; what the place looked like; how you felt, physically and emotionally; what you or someone else did or said; what effect it had on you; and how your feelings changed as a consequence of the experience. This is an experiential representation—a masterpiece of energetic creation.
Experiential representations are like the Buddha’s skandhas. They are the launching pad between the physical realm of the brain and body and the metaphysical realm of the mind; they are the nexus of the mind–body connection and the archives and accounts of our energetic interactions in the world; and they are the fundamental units of our intelligence, the building blocks of our reality, and, as I was beginning to explain, the scaffolding of our self.
Selves and Higher Selves
As an energetic information processor, the human neocortex is nature’s magnum opus. Among its talents is the ability to create an exemplar—a higher-order representation of any of the features that are common to a set of experiential representations. The first time we experience an apple, a representation of an apple is created in our neocortex. But as we experience other apples, an exemplar representation is created that includes the common characteristics of all the apples we have seen. This amazing neural capacity enables us to learn not just about different kinds of apples, but the difference between the garb of a Hasidic Jew and that of a Catholic cardinal; it convinces us that gravity really exists; it enables us to recognize our family and our friends. And it gives us our sense of self.
A self-representation is a network that represents those aspects of our being that are constantly present when we’re in a particular realm of our existence—the posture and state of relaxation we assume when we step into a yoga studio, the professional knowledge that comes to the fore as we walk into our office; these are all aspects of self-representations. Because our behavioral experiences change as we engage in different activities, we have multiple self-representations, all imbued with special expertise. And each one is “the boss” in the realm of experience within which it arose.
Now, here’s where this self-creation process gets really interesting. Because this so-called hierarchical process also acts on self-representations, we also have higher-order self-representations. In addition to providing us with an integrated sense of self (which is hardly an inconsequential gift), these higher-order selves allow us to be “self-reflective.” They serve as the “witness” that observes the passage of our thoughts as we begin to meditate and as the “higher self ” or “inner guide” that chooses the tougher but wiser road as we progress along our spiritual path. But these potentially more virtuous higher-order selves are not disembodied metaphysical beings visiting from another, more spiritual realm; they are integral to this energetic realm and are crafted from our experience. It is our own experiences that create our spiritual world.
Energy, Experience, and How We Calculate Our Life Path
Our networks of experience represent our relationship to the people, places, objects, and events in our world, as well as the feelings we take with us from these energetic interactions. The love we feel when our child smiles at us, and the pride we feel when we’re praised for a job well done are the emotional correlates of an actual or a predicted gain in energy; likewise, the anger we feel when we’ve been mistreated, and the jealousy we feel when someone flirts with our mate are the emotional readouts of an energetic loss. Whatever we’re feeling as the result of an experience serves as the rudder of our intelligence system—and our life path—in the next moment. It “associatively activates” other networks that have the same feeling component, thereby lighting up our memory records from periods of our history in which we felt the same way.
Our intelligence system generates this kind of “selective memory” to guide our decisions, because its best guess about what we should do in the next moment is something similar to what we have done in the past in similar situations. And it is these historical records that create our reality and our sense of self. Spiritual practices light up networks that make us feel uplifted and create a “divine reality” that persists for some time—which is why doing a practice on a regular basis can be life changing. But negative states are persistent as well, and because they’re low-energy states, they decrease our available motivation to engage in spiritually uplifting activities, just when we need them.
How to Make Your Self Holy
So what can we do to nurture our self-creation as vibrantly alive spiritual beings when we’re experiencing a reverberating negative emotion and our motivation is low? Remember that experiential networks are the building blocks of our reality and the scaffolding of our self. We can associatively change which of these networks are creating us in many different ways, but the method that takes the least amount of energy is to simply change our environment. Cues from the environment are strongly woven into our experiential networks and will begin to create a shift in our state, even in the absence of our active participation. So when you are feeling low, step out into nature, sit in a beautiful church or mosque or temple, or go to a playground and watch children play. And when your vitality returns, create your home as the environment you want to be creating you. As the mosaic façade in my kitchen reads, Make Where You Are Holy.
Peggy La Cerra is director of the Center for Evolutionary Neuroscience and the coauthor of The Origin of Minds: Evolution, Uniqueness, and the New Science of the Self (Harmony Books, 2002).