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The Neuroscience of Viewing Your Past Like a Fly on the Wall

Recalling memories from a 3rd-person visual perspective changes brain dynamics.

Myriam Zilles/Pixabay
Source: Myriam Zilles/Pixabay

About a year ago, I reported on Peggy St. Jacques' hypothesis that recalling autobiographical memories from a third-person, observer-like perspective (as opposed to replaying a memory through your own eyes) can influence the vividness of one's recollections. When describing the significance of her memory perspective theories last year, St. Jacques said in an August 2019 news release:

"Viewing memories in the third person tends to reduce the vividness of that experience, as well as the amount of emotion that we feel. Our memory system is very dynamic and flexible. Our ability to edit our memories allows us to grow and change how we perceive both ourselves and our experiences. For example, by changing the way we feel about a troubling memory, we're able to learn and move forward, helping those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as just one example."

St. Jacques got her Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and is currently an assistant professor in the Faculty of Science's Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta in Canada. She's also the founder and director of the Memory for Events Lab.

Last year's paper (St. Jacques, 2019) explored how changing one's visual perspective might influence memory encoding and retrieval. It also provided some initial neuroscience-based evidence "on the role of visual perspective in reshaping memories and how shifting visual perspective to novel viewpoints relies on similar constructive processes during imagination." This paper, "A New Perspective on Visual Perspective in Memory," was published online on July 12, 2019, in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Now, St. Jacques and Heather Iriye have published an fMRI-based follow-up study: "How Visual Perspective Influences the Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Autobiographical Memory Retrieval." Iriye conducted this research as part of her Ph.D. at the University of Sussex in the UK; currently, she's a postdoctoral fellow at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Their recent findings (Iriye & St. Jacques, 2020) appear in the August issue of Cortex.

St. Jacques and Iriye found that adopting a third-person, observer-like visual perspective when recalling autobiographical memories alters the functional connectivity between different parts of the brain compared to when someone recalls a memory in the first person through his or her own eyes. More specifically, the researchers found that taking a "fly on the wall" visual perspective when remembering one's past resulted in more robust interactions between the anterior hippocampus and the posterior medial network. As the authors explain:

"Our findings demonstrate that adopting own eyes and observer perspectives during autobiographical memory retrieval is correlated with distinct patterns of hippocampal–neocortical interactions associated with differential recruitment of the autobiographical memory retrieval network during later retrieval periods, thereby supporting the central role of visual perspective in reconstructing the personal past."

"Our [visual] perspective when we remember changes which brain regions support memory and how these brain regions interact together," St. Jacques said in an August 2020 news release. "These findings contribute to a growing body of research that shows that retrieving memories is an active process that can bias and even distort our memories."

Reminiscing about one's past from a third-person perspective appears to require more functional connectivity between brain regions that are used to recreate mental images in the mind's eye and may soften specific details held in an autobiographical memory.

Anecdotally, I have a hunch that reframing how one chooses to view adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in his or her mind's eye might be a way to reduce PTSD symptoms and promote post-traumatic growth. (See "8 Research-Based Reasons I Rose-Tint Some Childhood Memories")

St. Jacques speculates that choosing to adopt an observer-like perspective when recalling one's past could have therapeutic value. In closing, she said: "This may be an effective way of dealing with troubling memories by viewing the past from a distance and reducing the intensity of the emotions we feel."

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Heather Iriye and Peggy L. St. Jacques. "How Visual Perspective Influences the Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Autobiographical Memory Retrieval." Cortex (First available online: May 25, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2020.05.007

Peggy L. St. Jacques "A New Perspective on Visual Perspective in Memory." Current Directions in Psychological Science (First published online: July 12, 2019) DOI: 10.1177/0963721419850158

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