Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Discipline hopping: what does depression have to do with vulnerability science?

You often hear of the virtues of thinking 'out of the box', developing interdisciplinary reading habits, opening our minds to different influences and ideas. In spite of this, interdisciplinarity is a difficult monster to tame, and one commonly falls back on familiar authors, known reading lists, well-worn and oft-searched keywords. Skirting the peripheries of one's own discipline seems revolutionary enough, exploring a new discipline appears just too time-consuming and uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Professor Glen Wilson on 'The Black Dog: Causes and Cures for Depression'. Falling within psychology, the subject was many disciplines away from my research on farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change in India. So what exactly was I doing in that hall? First, two people very dear to me suffer from some form of 'the black dog' and attending a lecture on it seemed like a way to understand their situation better. Secondly, exhausted with writing and rewriting chapters in my own thesis, I was itching to engage with something different. A free lecture and spending a sunny day in London? Why not?

Prof. Glen Wilson talked through recent developments in neurology and psychology in understanding depression. He discussed the different approaches to treating depression and their (rather alarming) side effects. And then came on a slide that made me sit up: 'Adaptive Value?' it questioned. Here, Wilson explored whether depression had an adaptive value and thus had not been eliminated through evolutionary processes. Drawing linkages between gender and depression (women are twice as susceptible to depression as men) Wilson noted that perhaps this susceptibility is the price women pay for being more 'emotionally sensitive'. Like an orchid, in enriching conditions, women function well because of their emotion sensitivity. In unsupportive conditions, they wilt because of their depression proneness. Men, on the other hand, were likened to the resilient dandelion, that is able to weather tough conditions and thrive almost anywhere, thus making less sensitive to depression. In this sense, Wilson said, that perhaps this trait that we see as vulnerability in females, may actually be a form of plasticity through which women were able to function better in supportive environments.

This last thought made my mind race. What if resource-constrained, rain-dependent, smallholder farmers traditionally considered exceptionally vulnerable to climatic changes, are not all that vulnerable? What if in spite of being sensitive to external stressors, they respond better than more privileged farmers when exposed to supportive environments? There is already empirical evidence to suggest that poorer farmers use a wide range of response strategies when faced with external stressors as compared to richer counterparts. Perhaps Wilson's discussion of viewing vulnerability as plasticity has implications for understanding and incentivising farmer response behaviour (especially in the context of climate change)? While I have to develop this line of thought further, the excitement of findings from one field influencing my research ideas was inspiring and gave me a glimpse into what other possibilities there may be.

So, while it is great to engage with discussions, workshops and talks within your subject, why not go for something totally out of your comfort zone, something completely unrelated and see where that leads to?

Notes: 
  1. The transcript of Prof Glen Wilson's lecture and presentation slides are available here.  
  2. If in or around London, free lectures are available on various subjects at LSE, SOAS, Gresham College and Oxford

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