Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Conscious Cogn. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 September 1.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2763310

Visual Perspective and Genetics: A Commentary on Lemogne and Colleagues


Lemogne and colleagues offer an interesting extension to their previous work on visual perspective and depression: Individuals at-risk for depression (defined as higher scores on Harm Avoidance), without a history of mood disorders, report retrieval of positive memories from the 3rd person perspective. Their findings suggest that the retrieval of positive experiences from the 3rd person perspective may be a risk-factor for depression, not just a lingering consequence of it. Their study, however, also reports a genetic association in a severely underpowered sample. Rather than focusing on gene × environment interactions, which large, well-powered studies on related phenotypes have failed to detect, a greater understanding of the phenomenology of visual perspective may be a more fruitful avenue for future research.

Keywords: Visual perspective, genetics, Neuroticism, Depression, Autobiographical Memory, 5-HTT

A complete understanding of any psychological phenomenon, including visual perspective, will necessarily include its biological underpinnings, ultimately starting from the individual's genes. Given the progress that has been made in genetics over the last decade, there are now great opportunities to integrate psychological and biological methodologies. Lemogne and colleagues (this issue) take such an integrative approach to visual perspective by examining its relation to biological (5-HTTLPR), as well as psychological (Harm Avoidance), vulnerabilities to depression.

Although tantalizing, the relation between genetics and complex behavioral traits remains tenuous, and it may be premature to build complex models before the foundations are solid. For example, considerable effort has been devoted to linking variants in the serotonin transporter gene to depression and anxiety-related traits. In particular, much of this research has focused on trait Neuroticism, a strong risk factor for depression across the lifespan (Bienvenu et al., 2004; Kendler, Gatz, Gardner, & Pedersen, 2006; Weiss et al., in press). Although initial reports on small samples (< 600 participants) were promising (e.g., Lesch et al., 1996), several large, well-powered studies (~4000 participants) have provided strong evidence against an association between 5-HTTLPR and Neuroticism (Munafò, Freimer et al., 2009; Terracciano et al., 2009; Willis-Owen et al., 2005). In addition, two consistent findings have emerged from recent genome-wide association scans: There is no evidence of an association between 5-HTT and either Neuroticism (Shifman et al., 2008; Terracciano et al., 2008; Van Den Oord et al., 2008) or depression (Muglia et al., 2008) and, more generally, genetic variants explain much less than 1% of the variance in quantitative traits. Instead, quantitative traits may be influenced by many loci, each explaining a fraction of a percent of the variance.

The association between 5-HTTLRP and depression-related traits, however, may be moderated by exposure to stressful life events (Caspi et al., 2003). Yet, as with the main effect of genes on behavioral traits, interactions are similarly elusive. Several large-scale studies have failed to find a significant gene × environment interaction (e.g., Surtees et al., 2006) and a recent meta-analysis concluded that significant interactions between 5-HTTLPR and stressful life events on depression are compatible with chance findings (Munafò, Durrant, Lewis, & Flint, 2009). Further, to detect a gene × environment interaction, some have argued (e.g., Cooper, 2003) that sample sizes need to be approximately four times larger than those needed to detect a main effect of the same magnitude. Small-sample studies will simply not have the power to estimate such effects reliably.

In addition, there are basic questions about the nature of visual perspective, relevant to the genetic study of perspective, which remain unanswered. For example, to what extent is visual perspective trait-like versus state-like? Is it a general retrieval style or is it memory specific? Is it stable over time? The answer to these questions become increasingly important when considering the genetic basis of visual perspective, as the more heterogeneous the phenotype the more difficult it is to detect a genetic effect.

There is still much to be learned about the relation between visual perspective and depression behaviorally, and Lemogne and colleagues (this issue) add an interesting piece to this literature: they report that individuals at-risk for depression (defined as higher scores on Harm Avoidance), but who do not yet have a history of mood disorders, already report retrieval of positive memories from the 3rd person perspective. This finding builds on their previous research which has shown that individuals who are either currently depressed (Lemogne et al., 2006) or who are in remission (Bergouignan et al., 2008), retrieve positive memories from the 3rd person perspective. In light of these previous findings, their current data suggest that 3rd person memories for positive experiences are a risk-factor for depression, not just a lingering consequence of it. Investigators typically do not take history of mood disorders into account when examining the association between visual perspective and depression-related variables. Although longitudinal research is needed to determine the developmental interplay between visual perspective and depression, assessing visual perspective in individuals with a vulnerability to, but no history of, depression is the first step towards disentangling the causal direction of these two variables.

Their findings also support the hypothesis that visual perspective may be one mechanism through which individuals maintain self-coherence (Libby, Eibach, & Gilovich, 2005; Sutin & Robins, 2008). People are motivated to maintain both a coherent identity and high self-esteem (Swann, Rentfrow, & Guinn, 2003). When the two motives conflict, people generally choose authenticity over feeling good (Swann, Griffin, Predmore, & Gaines, 1987). For depression-prone individuals, memories of positive experiences may be incongruent with their negative self-concept. As an effective short-term strategy, the 3rd person perspective may reduce the inauthenticity produced by the positive memory by distancing the incongruent happy self in the memory from their dispositionally negative self. In the long run, however, this strategy greatly diminishes the power of positive memories to buffer against negative moods and may help to initiate a first depressive state, as well as perpetuate it.

Certainly, the field of genetics opens up a wide range of opportunities for research on psychological constructs and will help inform visual perspective as the research in this area progresses. Ultimately, a complete understanding of psychological phenomena will necessarily include their genetic origins and, when possible, genetic information should be incorporated into study designs. But care needs to be taken when approaching this research. Maintaining a narrow focus on specific genes that do not show reliable relations with the trait of interest will only hinder advancement. Large-scale, collaborative efforts that focus on multiple genes and multiple constructs may be a more fruitful avenue to elucidate the genetic underpinnings of psychological phenomena, such as visual perspective.


This research was supported entirely by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH, National Institute on Aging.


Publisher's Disclaimer: This is a PDF file of an unedited manuscript that has been accepted for publication. As a service to our customers we are providing this early version of the manuscript. The manuscript will undergo copyediting, typesetting, and review of the resulting proof before it is published in its final citable form. Please note that during the production process errors may be discovered which could affect the content, and all legal disclaimers that apply to the journal pertain.


  • Bergouignan L, Lemogne C, Foucher A, Longin E, Vistoli D, Allilaire JF, et al. Field perspective deficit for positive memories characterizes autobiographical memory in euthymic depressed patients. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2008;46:322–333. [PubMed]
  • Bienvenu OJ, Samuels JF, Costa PT, Reti IM, Eaton WW, Nestadt G. Anxiety and depressive disorders and the five-factor model of personality: A higher- and lower-order personality trait investigation in a community sample. Depression and Anxiety. 2004;20:92–97. [PubMed]
  • Caspi A, Sugden K, Moffitt TE, Taylor A, Craig IW, Harrington H, et al. Influence of life stress on depression: Moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science. 2003;301:386–389. [PubMed]
  • Cooper RS. Gene-environment interactions and the etiology of common complex disease. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2003;139:437–440. [PubMed]
  • Kendler KS, Gatz M, Gardner CO, Pedersen NL. Personality and major depression: A Swedish longitudinal, population-based twin study. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2006;63:1113–1120. [PubMed]
  • Lemogne C, Bergouignan L, Boni C, Gorwood P, Pélissolo A, Fossati P. Genetics and personality affect visual perspective in autobiographical memory. Consciousness and Cognition. 2009 doi:10.1016/j.concog.2009.04.002. [PubMed]
  • Lemogne C, Piolino P, Friszer S, Claret A, Girault N, Jouvent R, et al. Episodic autobiographical memory in depression: Specificity, autonoetic consciousness, and self-perspective. Consciousness and Cognition. 2006;15:258–268. [PubMed]
  • Lesch KP, Bengel D, Heils A, Sabol SZ, Greenberg BD, Petri S, et al. Association of anxiety-related traits with a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene regulatory region. Science. 1996;274:1527–1531. [PubMed]
  • Libby LK, Eibach RP, Gilovich T. Here's looking at me: The effect of memory perspective on assessments of personal change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2005;88:50–62. [PubMed]
  • Muglia P, Tozzi F, Galwey NW, Francks C, Upmanyu R, Kong XQ, et al. Genome-wide association study of recurrent major depressive disorder in two European case-control cohorts. Molecular Psychiatry. 2008 [PubMed]
  • Munafò MR, Durrant C, Lewis G, Flint J. Gene × environment interactions at the serotonin transporter locus. Biological Psychiatry. 2009;65:211–219. [PubMed]
  • Munafò MR, Freimer NB, Ng W, Ophoff R, Veijola J, Miettunen J, et al. 5-HTTLPR genotype and anxiety-related personality traits: A meta-analysis and new data. American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics. 2009;150:271–281. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Shifman S, Bhomra A, Smiley S, Wray NR, James MR, Martin NG, et al. A whole genome association study of neuroticism using DNA pooling. Molecular Psychiatry. 2008;13:302–312. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Surtees PG, Wainwright NWJ, Willis-Owen SAG, Luben R, Day NE, Flint J. Social adversity, the serotonin transporter (5-HTTLPR) polymorphism and major depressive disorder. Biological Psychiatry. 2006;59:224–229. [PubMed]
  • Sutin AR, Robins RW. When the “I” looks at the “Me”: Autobiographical memory, visual perspective, and the self. Consciousness and Cognition. 2008;17:1386–1397. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Swann WB, Jr, Griffin JJ, Jr, Predmore SC, Gaines B. The cognitive-affective crossfire: When self-consistency confronts self-enhancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1987;52:881–889. [PubMed]
  • Swann WB, Rentfrow PJ, Guinn JS. Self-verification: The search for coherence. In: Leary MR, Tangney JP, editors. Handbook of self and identity. Guilford Press; New York: 2003. pp. 367–383.
  • Terracciano A, Balaci L, Thayer J, Scally M, Kokinos S, Ferrucci L, et al. Variants of the serotonin transporter gene and NEO-PI-R Neuroticism: No association in the BLSA and SardiNIA samples. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics. 2009 [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Terracciano A, Sanna S, Uda M, Deiana B, Usala G, Busonero F, et al. Genome-wide association scan for five major dimensions of personality. Molecular Psychiatry. 2008 [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Van Den Oord EJCG, Kuo PH, Hartmann AM, Webb BT, Möller HJ, Hettema JM, et al. Genomewide association analysis followed by a replication study implicates a novel candidate gene for neuroticism. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2008;65:1062–1071. [PubMed]
  • Weiss A, Sutin AR, Duberstein PR, Friedman B, Bagby RM, Costa PT. The personality domains and styles of the Five-Factor Model are related to incident depression in Medicare recipients aged 65 to 100. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. (in press) [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Willis-Owen SAG, Turri MG, Munafò MR, Surtees PG, Wainwright NWJ, Brixey RD, et al. The serotonin transporter length polymorphism, neuroticism, and depression: A comprehensive assessment of association. Biological Psychiatry. 2005;58:451–456. [PubMed]