Researcher: We see ourselves from the past as a friend

Our brain perceives us differently now and in the past, suggest research results of Ilona Kotlewska from the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology. When we think of ourselves from the past, the brain “perceives” us the same way as it would a friend or a family member.

“Our attention automatically focuses on everything that concerns us at the moment, because it helps monitor the environment” – explained Ilona Kotlewska, PhD student at the Nencki Institute for Experimental Biology. She added that the information about ourselves is processed first in the brain – and we also automatically connect most of the stimuli we receive to our own experiences and beliefs. In other words, our brain pays special attention to all elements of the environment associated with us.

However, the process of creating memories is inevitable: after a few days, of all the stimuli that reach us at any given moment, we are able to recall only a few most important ones. “It is quite natural: we delete memories that are not important and we keep the most important ones, which are the basis of our continuous +I=, our feeling of +self+” – said Kotlewska.

How a person’s brain processes information related to that person and what mechanisms are responsible for creating a coherent image of one’s self is the topic of Ilona Kotlewska’s research work. However, it turns out that the preference for ourselves applies only to the present moment. The results of Ilona Kotlewska’s research suggest that when we think of ourselves in the past, the brain “perceives” us the same way as it would a friend or a family member.

This can be seen in one of Kotlewska’s studies. Participants in the study were shown adjectives describing character traits – both positive and negative. Then they would assess whether the adjective could describe: themselves at a given moment, themselves in the past, their close relative or a specific celebrity. It was not surprising that the participants were most favourable towards themselves in the present.

“When we evaluate ourselves in the present, we are dealing with the process called +attributional egotism+ – it is a tendency to positive self-evaluation” – the researcher explained. “When we talk about ourselves in the past, we exhibit a greater distance towards ourselves” – she added.

This distance could be seen in the EEG study used in the study: when a participant had to evaluate himself from the past, his brain reacted similarly to the situation, in which he assessed a friend or a relative. “This means that the same neuronal circuits were activated – or very similar circuits. So it can be said that when we look at ourselves from the past, we see very close person – but not exactly ourselves” – said Kotlewska.

“+I in the past+ is someone close to me, but I do not 100 percent identify with that person, because I do not have as much data about that person as about myself at this moment – neuronal paths are simply blurred” – the researcher said.

What exactly are these details about one’s self? According to Kotlewska, at any given moment we process huge amounts of data related to ourselves. For example, when talking on the phone at work, we do not focus only on that conversation. We can simultaneously be annoyed by an uncomfortable chair, stress about the approaching conversation with the boss, hear the commotion in the office, notice that a colleague is trying to draw our attention and look forward to going to the movies in the evening. However, when we recall this conversation after a few days, we will not remember most of these things.

The Polish researcher obtained similar results in another experiment, in which the participants were women who changed their name after marriage. Each of them was already a couple of years after the wedding and each had already become accustomed to her new name. As it turned out, this involved a mental “separation” from herself in the past: when the participants were shown their old name, their brains reacted the same way as when seeing the name of a close person.

In the same study, however, it turned out that the factor that helped our brain to connect “me from the past” with “me in the present” may be the changes in our appearance. While there were distinct differences in the processing of name information, there were no analogous differences when the study participants were shown their old photographs.

“While the name change happens once, physical appearance changes are ongoing, due to the aging process and other factors” – Kotlewska explained. “So the information about the physical aspects of our consciousness is constantly being supplemented”.

In the beginning of August, the researcher went to Dartmouth College (USA) to continue her research as part of the prestigious Polish-American Fulbright Scholarship.

“My previous research was done using the EEG technique – now I will have the opportunity to verify it by analysing data from magnetic resonance” – said Kotlewska. “Neuroscience studies can not follow comprehensive, coherent concepts. In order to be able to study them at all, we have to divide them into smaller segments, single processes” – said the researcher.

“By using the predictive coding method, instead of focusing on the identification of individual structures responsible for self-recognition processes, the pattern of brain activity is analysed. This makes it possible to distinguish the contribution of particular structures to the total registered activation” – explained Kotlewska. “This means that in addition to these individual structures, we study the connections between them – the way they communicate”.

Kotlewska anticipates that when studying the process of recognition of own face in photographs, it will be possible to observe the communication between the structures associated with “I” and attention (medial prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex), with the analysis of the face as such (fusiform gyrus structures), and those associated with emotions (amygdala).

“We hope to be able to compare the pattern of activation of brain structures during self-recognition with the activation pattern at the moment we see a person close to us” – said the researcher. “This will allow us to more accurately verify whether these are indeed the same patterns – and thus confirm the results of our previous studies, or suggest another research path”.

PAP – Science and Scholarship in Poland, Katarzyna Florencka

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