One of the first decisions a fiction writer must make before setting fingers to keyboard is the narrative point of view. The question of who will be telling the story—a third person narrator outside the story, or the first person perspective of a character within the story—has a bearing on many aspects of a reader’s experience, not the least of which is the emotional impact of the incidents being narrated. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example, Huck’s eventual decision to “go to hell” rather than turn the runaway slave Jim over to his owners is infinitely more powerful narrated from his own point of view than it would be if narrated from that of an external third person narrator, because it allows us to be privy to the difficult internal struggle that preceded it.
According to research on the visual perspective of autobiographical memories, the act of retrieving memories from our past involves a consideration of point of view not unlike that facing a fiction writer preparing to write a short story or novel. Several studies (e.g. McDermott et al.) have demonstrated that when we recall events from earlier in our lives, a significant percentage of these autobiographical memories are visualized from a third person “observer” point of view rather than the first person perspective from which we actually experienced them. In other words, when we retrieve a memory of a past experience, our visual perspective is often shifted in such a way that we no longer see the events unfolding through our own field of vision as we originally saw them, but we watch ourselves from the outside looking on as if we were an observer of the experience rather than the subject who lived it. In the theater of our autobiographical memories, we move from center stage out into the audience.
One recent study examined the neural mechanisms involved in such visual perspective shifting, exploring in the process the influence that adopting an alternative visual perspective of a memory has upon the way it is retrieved and later remembered. Subjects in the study were asked to generate a large number of autobiographical memories, and then rate whether the memories were recalled from an “own eyes” or “observer” perspective—from first or third person point of view. The researchers selected a subset of memories that involved a “spontaneous own eyes perspective,” and in a second session, asked participants to retrieve these memories from either the same perspective as before (first person) or from an alternate, third person point of view. In a third session, a couple of days later, participants were asked to once again retrieve all of the memories they generated in the first session.
Participants' fMRI scans revealed that the precuneus—a part of the posterior parietal cortex that has been called the “mind’s eye” for its role in mental imagery processing—is actively involved in the shift from a dominant to an alternative visual perspective during memory retrieval. Several studies have shown that the precuneus supports the ability to “update internal representations of the world when imagining changes in self-location in space,” and this latest research indicates that this holds true even when the space in which we imagine moving about is that of our own memories.
In addition to identifying the neural mechanisms involved in changing the perspective from which we view our memories, the study also revealed some interesting phenomenological changes that accompany a shift in point of view. In both the second and third sessions, participants reported that the memories that they had shifted from an “own eyes” to an observer perspective were not as emotionally intense as they were when viewed from their original point of view. Just as with writing a novel, the perspective we choose from which to view a “story” from our past has serious implications for the emotional impact that it will have upon its “audience” (i.e. our mental present, in which we retrieve the memory).
Another interesting finding of the study was that retrieving a memory from an alternative perspective in the second session increased the likelihood that it would once again be viewed from the alternative perspective when spontaneously retrieved in the third session. The “editing” done on the manuscript of the retrieved memory appeared to be more or less permanent, along with—presumably—the altered emotional character of the memory.
The prevailing view of autobiographical memory is that it is constructive rather than reproductive. In other words, when we remember an episode from our past, we do not simply access a file and hit the “play button, but instead construct the memory anew from memory traces stored in various locations throughout our brains. This constructive nature of memory makes us all, in essence, perpetual authors of our own internal autobiographies. The study on perspective shifting supports the constructive model, suggesting that the manipulation of mental images in the “mind’s eye” of the precuneus during memory retrieval “can shape and potentially restructure how we remember.”
So the next time we prepare to write a chapter in our mental autobiography—whether it be our first kiss or our last day of high school—we should think like a fiction writer and remember that point of view matters.