Our perception of ourselves and past events gets fuzzier as we age, study reveals

HANOVER, N. H. — You may remember your 10th birthday party like it was yesterday, but do you really recall how you were feeling back then? Probably not, according to a new study that finds a person’s perception of self tends to break down the further away they get from an event in time.

Do you remember how anxious, exited, or annoyed you were feeling yesterday? Probably, but two weeks ago is a bit hazier, according to researchers. Similarly, while you can in all likelihood predict how you’ll feel tomorrow afternoon, your general mood two months from now is much more of a mystery. Dartmouth College researchers report self-perception tends to blur the further we go from the present moment.

Imagine staring at two red jeeps, same model and year of production. Up close, you notice numerous small differences and imperfections distinguishing the two cars. Move back a few hundred feet, though, and suddenly it’s much harder to tell the two jeeps apart from such a distance. In the study of perception, scientists call this phenomenon “compression” and study authors say an individual’s self-perception works in a similar way.

“Our self-concept becomes increasingly blurrier over time, the farther you get from the present,” says senior study author Meghan Meyer, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, in a media release. “As you think about yourself farther out in time, either in the past or in the future, you’re accessing a less distinguishable version of yourself.”

Mental ‘snapshots’ get blurry over time

This research included four experiments. In three of the experiments subjects had to either rate their own personality traits or report their perception of self at various different times in both the past and future. Those exercises showed that in relation to one’s present self, people tend to compress their past and future selves.

For the fourth experiment, the team showed participants two personality traits and asked them to pick which one best described their feelings at a specific point in time – all while undergoing an fMRI scan. The brain scan helped researchers determine how the brain organizes representations of the self across time. Each time any participant imagined themselves at any point in time (past, present, or future), researchers could observe what their brain looked like. These snapshots of neural activity were called “stamps.”

The stamps became less distinguishable from each other as participants thought about themselves farther out in time.

“Even at the level of brain activity, we see evidence that our past and future selves become less distinctive as we consider ourselves farther out in time,” Prof. Meyer comments.

Furthermore, the fMRI data was indeed consistent with results garnered from the subjects’ personality ratings. This suggests compelling evidence of what the team refers to as the “temporal self-compression” effect.

“Our research provides a new way to think about how we organize our identity over time,” adds first study author Sasha Brietzke.

Looking back or looking ahead too much can lead to problems

Looking ahead too infrequently, or scrutinizing the past too often, can lead to problems in the present. Such as someone failing to properly save money for their future.

“Future research on the temporal self-compression effect might help explain this type of behavior. People may have difficulty making good decisions for their future self or accurately recalling their past because they can’t see their distant self in clear view,” Prof. Meyer concludes.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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