Fascinating new research about how the human mind works.
“Humans have a capacity to imagine scenarios, reflect on them, and embed them into larger narratives,” says evolutionary psychologist Thomas Suddendorf at the University of Queensland in Australia. “There appears to be something fundamentally distinct about human “mental time travel” when compared to the capacities of our closest-surviving animal relatives.”
At it most simple, human beings look ahead and believe they can predict their future. But this ability to forecast our futures, however inaccurately, comes at a price.
“We worry about many things we can do little about, and we can experience persistent anxiety about things that may never eventuate,” says Suddendorf.
Most of us overcome these worries easily enough. Humans are different from other animals. As the Current Biology website notes, we have an in-built optimism bias, which gives us a rosier view of the future than is really appropriate.
The ability to anticipate is a hallmark of cognition. Inferences about what will occur in the future are critical to decision making, enabling us to prepare our actions so as to avoid harm and gain reward.
Given the importance of these future projections, one might expect the brain to possess accurate, unbiased foresight.
Humans, however, exhibit a pervasive and surprising bias: when it comes to predicting what will happen to us tomorrow, next week, or fifty years from now, we overestimate the likelihood of positive events, and underestimate the likelihood of negative events.
For example, we underrate our chances of getting divorced, being in a car accident, or suffering from cancer. We also expect to live longer than objective measures would warrant, overestimate our success in the job market, and believe that our children will be especially talented. This optimism bias phenomenon is one of the most consistent, prevalent, and robust behaviour or cognition biases documented in psychology and behavioural economics.
This becomes especially important where death is concerned. As far as studies can establish, we seem to be the only animal able to contemplate, understand and cope with our own mortality.
“One of the realities is that you are going to die.” But humans have an amazing ability to apparently ignore – or at least suppress – this eventuality, which Ajit Varki of the University of California dubs “an evolutionary quirk”.
For example, if animals denied the risks of death as many humans do, zebras or antelopes might knowingly graze near hungry lions. They don’t.
But this is innate optimism appears not to be the case for those with depression, for whom the future often appears very bleak. And in reality, they might well be right, at least to some extent, as they are not affected by the irrational “optimism bias”.
“Clinical psychologists are beginning to recognise and disentangle the important roles aspects of foresight play in our mental health,” says Suddendorf.
Depressed people truly appreciate reality, agrees Varki, who has written extensively about human uniqueness and our ability to deny death.
So why do “healthy” people exhibit optimism bias?
“We need that denial,” says Varki. “Otherwise we might curl up and do nothing.”
And instead of facing the transient nature of life, some us engage in apparently reckless activities such as climbing dangerous mountains, driving cars too fast and taking mind-altering drugs, content in our assumption that we’ll be fine.
So the next time you meet someone suffering from depression, don’t be too quick to dismiss their view of the world. They might just be seeing it more clearly than you.
Which is a depressing thought, eh?