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Good Reasons for Bad Feelings

Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry

By Randolph M. Nesse, MD
  • Read in 18 minutes
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  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Good Reasons for Bad Feelings by Randolph M. Nesse, MD

Good Reasons for Bad Feelings (2018) bridges the gap between evolutionary biology and psychiatry by answering some pressing questions about why we feel the way we do. By focusing on our evolutionary development, we can better understand where many of our most instinctual feelings, moods and emotions come from, and how we can better treat our disorders when they arise.

Key idea 1 of 11

Natural selection and our modern environments have given us great advantages and great vulnerabilities.

Through countless generations, the process of natural selection has brought us an array of advantages, such as opposable thumbs and sensitive vocal cords. When paired with our evolved brains, these traits allow us to create handcrafted wonders and to communicate our most profound thoughts.

But despite the many triumphs of human evolution, we are yet to develop immunity to many of the physical and mental diseases that plague us. While we’ve made certain ailments, like infected wounds and polio, less life-threatening than they once were, we still fall victim to cancers and chronic depression.

This is, in part, because our environments change with us and consistently introduce new dangers, like processed foods filled with dangerous amounts of sugar, salt and saturated fats. Once upon a time, these ingredients were rare, so our bodies had a healthy craving for them. But due to their relatively sudden abundance, our bodies are ill-equipped to deal with them. And so we find ourselves facing high levels of obesity and heart disease, as well as eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

At any rate, there’s little chance that natural selection will help us overcome such issues, since health and longevity are not what natural selection is concerned with. Ultimately, natural selection is all about emphasizing the traits that lead to better chances of reproduction. If you’ve ever felt the desperate desire to have sex with someone of the opposite gender, regardless of any problems this may create, then you’ve likely experienced this process in action.

Natural selection also has limits and trade-offs that practically guarantee continued imperfections. 

For example, humans have a relatively strong sense of sight, but we certainly don’t have the kind of telescopic vision that an eagle has. Theoretically, we could develop new eyes that address our imperfections, but this would take thousands of generations, and the process would result in our vision getting worse before it got better.

Any evolutionary improvement in eyesight or brain power would come at a cost. If we were to gain more telescopic vision, it would mean that we’d lose the peripheral and color vision we currently enjoy. Likewise, if we were to develop bigger, more powerful brains, this would require larger heads, which would increase the risk of death during childbirth.

Of course, there are certain traits that we’d like to lose, such as feelings of stress and anxiety. But this would also come at a cost. As we’ll see in the next blink, these bad feelings help us to sense danger and stay alive.

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