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The Neuroscience and Philosophy of Depression

Session A: July 6 - July 16, 2021
9:30 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Philosophy and Society
Rachel Xian
Michael Wang

Suicide has reached pandemic levels. With 1 in 10 likely to experience depression in their life and suicide being the number one cause of nonaccidental death for young people, understanding depression is more critical than ever. Neuroscience alone might be able to describe depression’s mechanisms, and psychiatry might be able to ease suffering, but addressing depression’s complex and devastating effects on the human condition requires philosophy. To develop a holistic understanding of the suffering mind, students will participate in class discussion, attend neuroscience lectures, and reflect on primary texts from neuropsychiatry and philosophy.

Learning outcomes

  • Develop a rigorous understanding of the pitfalls of depression treatment and diagnosis through discussions of primary literature in neuropsychiatric, philosophy, and political theory
  • Learn the basics of neurotransmission
  • Critique the philosophical and neuroscientific assumptions that underpin medical treatment of the mind
  • Apply teachings from existentialist philosophy and neuropsychiatry research to better their personal lives

Possible assignments

Students will be expected to write a 200-400 word reflection after each class topic. Reflections will be safe spaces for questions, personal experiences, and applications of lecture information on all things related to depression. Reflection excerpts will be anonymously shared in the following session for class discussion.


Students will also be divided into small “journal clubs” -- groups of 3-6 students assigned to read, digest, and present one literature review article on new theories of depression. Each group will have approximately 25 minutes to present their journal article, followed by a 10-15 minute Q&A fielding.


Students will be assigned readings for class discussion on the philosophy days. Readings may include excerpts from:

  • The Ethics of Authenticity - Charles Taylor
  • Exit, Voice, and Loyalty - Albert O. Hirschmann
  • Discipline and Punish - Michel Foucault
  • Cruel Optimism - Lauren Berlant
  • Depression: A Public Feeling - Ann Cvetkovich

Neuroscience and Philosophy of Depression Syllabus

Day1: Introduction to the module and theories of depression

  • Student introductions, module overview, icebreakers
  • Theories, diagnosis, and classification
  • Introduction to antidepressant mechanisms of action

Day 2: Authenticity and the Self

  • Introduction to existentialism and authenticity
  • Depression and experiences of selfhood

Day 3: Neuroscience of stress

  • The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis
  • The vagus nerve interface
  • Introduce to cognitive behavioral therapy

Day 3: Journal Club Group 1 - Literature review on stress in depression

Day 4: Sociopolitical structures behind depression - part 1

  • Constant unpredictable mild stress (CUMS) model
  • The American Dream

Day 5: Sociopolitical structures behind depression - part 2

  • The panopticon
  • Discipline, punishment, and authority

Day 6: Development and barriers to treatment

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy intensive
  • The neurodiversity movement
  • Introduction to antidepressants

Day 7: Journal Club Group 2 - Literature review on antidepressants

Day 8: Atypical treatments

  • New wave antidepressants
  • NMDA antagonists

Day 9: Cruel optimism and a way forward

  • Impasse and the “Good Life”
  • Connecting selfhood and power structures to cruel optimism
  • Attachments and new worlds
  • Habitual movement as unsticking the impasse