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Institute of Evolutionary Medicine (IEM)

Evolution and mental health

Summary of Research

Is depressed mood an adaptation (e.g. for dealing with social conflict, or infection)? Were autistic people renowned for their exceptional memory and technical skills in the past (as famous autistic people like Temple Grandin claim)? We are testing such evolutionary explanations for common mental “disorders” and are developing better empirical and theoretical frameworks for analyzing mental health from an evolutionary perspective. Our general approach is that depressed mood states might help solve certain adaptive problems, but this can become dysregulated and turn into chronic depression in modern societies; similarly, we view many mental "disorders" (like some forms of autism) as extremes of a spectrum of neurodiverse personality traits that was likely functional in past societies. We also develop frameworks for systematically reviewing and interpreting the empirical evidence pertinent to evolutionary explanations of mental disorders. In addition to such theoretical work, we plan to collect quantitative data on neurodiverse traits among non-WEIRD populations and relate them to fitness outcomes in order to better understand how selection might have acted on them, as well as qualitative ethnographic insights into how neurodiverse people fare in small-scale subsistence societies.

Selected Published Articles

  • Stieglitz J, Jaeggi AV, Blackwell AD, Trumble BC, Gurven M, Kaplan H. 2014. Work to live and live to work: Productivity, transfers, and psychological well-being in adulthood and old age. In: Sociality, hierarchy, health: Comparative biodemography. Edited by M Weinstein and M Lane. National Academies Press
  • Hunt A, Jaeggi AV. 2022. Specialised minds: Extending adaptive explanations of personality to the evolution of psychopathology. Evolutionary Human Sciences