Choose a memory. It can be as fresh as breakfast or as remote as your first day in kindergarten. What matters is that you can really visualize it. Put the picture in your mind.
Think now: Do you see the scene with your own eyes as you did at the time? Or do you see yourself in it as if you were watching a character in a movie? Do you see it, in other words, from a first-person or third-person perspective? Usually, we associate this type of distinction with storytelling and writing fiction. But like a story, each visual memory has its own tacit point of view. All viewing is a vision of somewhere. And sometimes, in memories, that’s somewhere not where I was actually at the time.
This fact is strange, even disturbing. It goes against our basic understanding of memory as a simple record of experience. For a long time, psychologists and neuroscientists did not pay much attention to this fact. That has changed in recent years, and as the volume of research on the role of perspective has multiplied, it has also had its potential implications. It turns out that a memory perspective is associated with criminal justice, implicit bias, and PTSD. On a deeper level, it helps us understand who we are.
The distinction between first and third person memories goes back at least to that of Sigmund Freud, the first person hung It was at the end of the nineteenth century. However, it was only for another 80 years that the first experimental studies began to elucidate the details of the memory perspective. It was only in the first decade of the twenty-first century that the field actually began to gain traction. What those early studies found was that third-person memories were much less strange than previously thought. This phenomenon is associated with a number of mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, but it is not just a symptom of pathology; Even among healthy people, it is very common.
It is difficult to determine how common it is. Peggy St. Jacques, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta who studies perspective in memory, told me that nearly 90 percent of people report having at least a third person memory. For the average person, Saint-Jacques estimates, based on her research, that about a quarter of memories from the past five years are third person memories. (at least Husband From Leaves I discovered that women tend to have more third person memories than men, but Third study No significant differences were shown; On the whole, research on potential demographic disparities is minimal.) In some rare cases casespeople may have Just Third person memories. As you try to remember what you have, be aware that things can get confused quickly. Perhaps you can bring to mind early childhood scenes that you imagine from a third person perspective. But it’s hard to tell if these are real first-person-to-first-person memories, or third-person scenes taken from stories or photographs. For some people, third-person memories are second nature; To others, they sound like science fiction.
Why any particular memory is called from one perspective rather than the other is the result of a whole host of intersecting factors. People are more likely to remember experiences in which they felt anxious or self-conscious — for example, when they gave a presentation to a crowd — in the third person, Saint-Jacques told me. This makes sense: when you imagine how you are looking through the audience’s eyes at the moment, you are more likely to see yourself through their eyes at the time of the retrieval. Researchers have too found again and again That the older the memory, the more likely it is to be retrieved from the third person. This, too, is somewhat self-evident: If first person memories are the ability to adopt an attitude – and internalize experience – to your former self, then naturally you will have more trouble seeing the world as you did 6 years older than the way you did last week. The tendency to translate old memories into the third person may also be related to the fact that the more distant the memory, the less details are likely to be, and You have less detailsless likely that you will be able to rethink the distinct point from which you originally watched the scene, David Rubin, a professor of psychology at Duke University who published dozens Of the papers on autobiographical memory, he told me.
Perhaps the opposite is least intuitive: people can remember a scene in In more detail When they are asked to take a first person perspective instead of when they are asked to take a third person perspective. “Sometimes in a courtroom, an eyewitness to a reviewer may be asked to recall what happened from the writer’s point of view,” Saint-Jacques told me. But if her research is indicative, these tactics may blur a witness’s memory rather than sharpen it. Our research suggests that this may actually be more likely to make memory less Vivid, make an eyewitness less You are more likely to remember the details.”
Even without the examiner’s instructions, an eyewitness can remember the theft in the third person: Researchers have found that people often translate traumatic or emotionally charged memories from the first person. This may be because first-person memories tend to elicit stronger emotional reactions at the time of retrieval, and by taking a third-person perspective, we can distance ourselves from the traumatic experience, Angelina Soutin, a psychologist at Florida State University, told me. . It may also be a function of the information in our possession. Robin said that in charged situations, people tend to focus on the object of their anger or fear. Take the bank robbery scenario: the police “want the teller to describe the person robbing them, and instead describe in great detail the barrel of a gun aimed at his head.” He can’t remember much more than that. Thus, due to his lack of information to put himself in his original perspective, he floats.
This banishing effect has some potential applications that make the mind somewhat boggling, perhaps more so than the problem of NDEs. For many years, philosophers and psychologists have documented cases of people reporting feeling, in moments of shock, as if they were swimming outside – usually above – their bodies. Rubin points out, however, that such reports are not descriptions at the moment but are post-truth accounts. So he has a controversial idea: What later looks like an out-of-body experience may actually be just a traumatic translation of the first person’s memory into the third person’s memory, one so compelling that it tricks you into thinking that the same experience happened in the third person. The recollection, in this theory, is like a person looking through a convex window, mistaken for distorting glass to distort the world.
Painful breaks are dramatic but they are by no means isolated cases of what Rubin calls “the constructive nature of the world.” in 2019 review article Regarding the memory perspective, Saint-Jacques pointed out that shifting your perspective and creating an entirely new scene relies on the same mental processes that occur in the same brain regions. It is so similar to remembering the past and predicting the future that some psychologists have grouped them into one category:Mental time travel. Both are construction work. The distinction between memory and imagination is blurred.
On some level, people generally understand this, but we rarely get an example as indisputable as with third-person memories. If you and your friend try to remember the decor at the restaurant where you dined last month, you may find that you differ on some points. You think the wallpaper is green, your friend thinks it’s blue, and one of you is wrong, and both of you are sure you’re right. With the memories of the third person, though, you I know The memory is distorted, because you may not have been looking at yourself at the time. If you could, without realizing it, change something as pivotal as the perspective from which you see a memory, how confident would you be in any of the details of the memory?
In this way, the memories of the third person are rather terrifying. But shifts in perspective are more than memory deficiencies. In her lab at Ohio State University, psychologist Lisa Libby investigates the relationship between the perspective of memory and identity — that is, shifts in our memory play a role in how we understand who we are. in one experienceLibby asked a group of female university students if they were interested in STEM. The students then participated in a science activity, some in a version designed to be attractive, others in a version designed to be boring. Then, when I surveyed undergraduates about how they found the exercise, I asked some to remember it in the first person and others in the third person. The first-person group answers correspond to how exciting the task really is; The third person group corresponded to whether they said they liked STEM in the initial survey.
The takeaway Libby: Each type of memory seems to have its own function. “One way of thinking about the two perspectives is that they help you represent … two different components of who you are as a person,” Libby told me. Remembering an event in the first person puts you in an experiential frame of mind. It helps you remember how you felt in the moment. Remembering an event in the third person puts you in a more narrative frame of mind. It helps you put your experience into context by making it align with your previous beliefs and conditioning them into a coherent story. Memory is – or at least a– Withdrawal of identity from identity; Perspective is a tool we use to shape it.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of this is what it suggests about the human propensity for narrative. When we shift our memories from one perspective to another, often without realizing it, we shape and reshape our experience into a story, turning chaos into coherence. Narrative motivation appears to be deeper than we generally admit. It is not just a cultural whim or a fortuitous product of modern life. It is a fact of psychology, rooted in the human mind.