The serotonin system is a collection of neural pathways whose overall level of functioning (from low to high) relates to diverse kinds of psychological and behavioral variability. Individual differences in serotonergic function are important both in personality and in vulnerability to psychological disorders. These disorders range widely—from impulsive aggression to depression. One way to understand such diverse reflections of differences in serotonergic function is by viewing serotonergic function through the lens of two-mode (or dual-process) models of self-regulation. Such theories posit a lower-order system that responds quickly to associative cues of the moment and a higher-order system that responds reflectively and planfully. Low serotonergic function appears to enhance influence of the lower-order system. This often yields impulsive reactivity. Why, then, does low serotonergic function also relate to depression, which is characterized by lethargy and unresponsiveness? The answer must be that ascendance of the lower system interacts with other factors. One hypothesis is that low serotonergic function plus high sensitivity to incentives yields vulnerability to impulsive approach, whereas low serotonergic function plus low incentive sensitivity yields vulnerability to depression. Conceptualizing serotonergic function this way helps integrate information pertaining to very different disorders into a coherent picture.
Current Directions in Psychological Science