The existential psychologist Rollo May wrote that “depression is the inability to construct a future”1 while Lionel Tiger stated that “optimism has been central to the process of human evolution”2. These deceptively simple phrases are remarkable in their depth and the connections they form between philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. Both capture the essence of human nature by articulating their insight that our ability to imagine and plan for the future is not only one of the most striking aspects of our species, but also that the inability to exercise this faculty is profoundly damaging to our happiness and sense of self. Two concepts related to these observations are depressive realism – the assertion that people with depression actually have a more accurate perception of reality, and moreover are less affected by its counterpoint, the superiority illusion. The superiority illusion is a cognitive bias by which individuals, relative to others, overestimate their positive qualities and abilities (such as intelligence, cognitive ability, and desirable traits) and underestimate their negative qualities. (Other cognitive biases include optimism bias and illusion of control.) While mathematically flawed – given a normal population distribution, most people are not above average – the superiority illusion is a positive belief that promotes mental health. Recently, scientists at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (Chiba, Japan), the Japan Science and Technology Agency (Saitama), and Stanford University School of Medicine used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) to study the default states of neural and molecular systems that generate the superiority illusion. They showed that resting-state functional connectivity between the frontal cortex and striatum regulated by inhibitory dopaminergic neurotransmission determines individual levels of the superiority illusion. The scientists state that their findings help clarify how the superiority illusion is biologically determined and identify potential molecular and neural targets for treating depressive realism.
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