Depressed in the West: Cultural Neuroscience Chimes In


Buddha statues line the wall at Wat Pho in Bangkok. (Photo by Bonnie Heath)

Grasping: Buddhism has decried it as the source of all human suffering for millennia while the West built an entire culture around it. We want more money. We want more life. We live our self-centered lives with the demon of impermanence breathing down our neck. The idea that we might feel better if we forgot about ourselves for a little bit should seem like a no-brainer.

Now, a brand-new cultural neuroscience study from Northwestern University backs that notion up with some interesting findings. Researchers at the school's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences found that genetic tendencies to depression are much less likely to affect a culture based on collectivistic values than one based on individualistic values.

According to a press release from Northwestern, the study focused on a particular serotonin transporter gene (STG) with both a long and short form. The short form can lead to major depressive episodes when faced with multiple life stressors. You know how it goes in the West: credit card bills, Hollywood-fueled low self esteem, annoying customer service, slow Internet connections...

Essentially, Western societies value the freedom of the individual over the group harmony, and Eastern societies are the reverse. The researchers found that while 80 percent of the population in East Asia were susceptible to depression, the percentage of cases was much lower. Why? Because, as a people, they were more focused on the larger cultural picture.

So what's the real take home from all this? The researchers stress the possibilities for culture-based treatments for depression. Think about that for a little, won't you? Maybe the problem's not so much you or your genes, but the culture you're a part of? You're just a cell in a larger organism -- and there's no telling how sick that behemoth really is.

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About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.