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What Is Evolutionary Psychiatry?

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  • Written By: Jillian O Keeffe
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 05 September 2016
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Psychiatry is the study and treatment of the types of mental illnesses that people can suffer from. Evolutionary psychiatry is a specific type of medicine, in which the psychiatrist looks for explanations of illnesses that relate to human evolution. Examples of evolutionary mechanisms which may play significant roles in psychiatric disease include anxiety, worry and aggression.

Scientists in the field of evolutionary science search for the presence of evolutionary mechanisms in biology and behavior. An interest in sex and babies is one of the mechanisms which has evolved to ensure that humans produce the next generation. Behavior that promotes a person's status over others can gain that person an increased access to money, goods and support, along with an increased attractiveness to the opposite sex. Fear and worry evolved to tell a person when they are in danger, and how much effort to expend in thinking about solutions.

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Specialists in the field of evolutionary psychiatry may also take into account social and environmental factors when considering an evolutionary factor in psychiatric disease. For example, a woman driven by an evolutionary mechanism to eat sweet and rich food items that are high in energy may also be affected by societal expectation to be slim, and can suffer from an eating disorder as a result. A person who grows up with certain cultural values, and who pursues those values in contrast to the laws of the nation in which he or she resides, may also be explicable by evolutionary psychiatry, which recognizes that children are impressionable when young with their parents' values.

Fear can become altered in a person who suffers from conditions like phobias. In these cases, an evolutionary psychiatrist can tie natural fear into the specific situation that prompted the abnormal fear in the first place. He or she can also potentially use data gleaned from neuroscientists to figure out how the brain develops during a person's lifetime, and which triggers are most likely, from an evolutionary psychiatry point of view, to trigger the development of the mental disorder.

Evolutionary psychology is another field of science that is related to evolutionary psychiatry, but it is a distinct field, although more established than the psychiatric field. Psychiatry in general focuses on the medical conditions that can affect people's minds, whereas psychologists are interested both in the medical conditions of the mind and also the normal workings of the mind. Often, evolutionary psychologists are academics, whereas evolutionary psychiatrists are in practice as doctors.

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